Embracing Data for a More Efficient Government

Robin Thottungal Robin Thottungal

By Robin Thottungal

Innovators across the federal government are leveraging the power of data to address some of our most complex national challenges.

Data allow us to discover patterns, connect the dots and identify opportunities for innovation. Data should not be buried in spreadsheets, filing cabinets and static reports; they should be accessible at the push of a button or a quick internet search.

For the past year, I have had the privilege of representing EPA in the Federal Data Cabinet, a community of over 100 innovators across approximately 50 agencies. Together, we identify which tools and guidance are needed to sustain the people, practices and policies of a data-driven government.

Looking with a bird’s eye view at government-sized programs

To see a single, integrated view of our operations, we need to be able to explore data visually. Interactive dashboards and platforms can cut through increasing data volume and complexity.

For example, my team is building a data analytics platform to further enable evidence-based decision making across EPA. By integrating all of our acquisitions data into a single dashboard, called the Spend Visualization and Strategic Sourcing Savings Tracker, we can create a clear picture of EPA’s logistics and supply chain.

EPA's Strategic Sourcing tool leverages the Agency’s full buying power in order to reduce acquisition administrative costs and develop long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with best-in-class providers of products and services.

EPA’s Strategic Sourcing tool leverages the Agency’s full buying power in order to reduce acquisition administrative costs and develop long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with best-in-class providers of products and services.

 

The EPA Spend Tool enables our Office of Acquisitions Management (OAM) to accurately monitor, compare and answer questions regarding EPA spending.

The EPA Spend Tool enables our Office of Acquisitions Management (OAM) to accurately monitor, compare and answer questions regarding EPA spending.

Looking beyond EPA, there are many other stories to tell from Federal Data Cabinet members. For example, the General Services Administration is empowering business analysts to manage and support basic federal agency functions with their Data-2-Decision (D2D) platform. D2D moves analysis beyond describing the past; it allows users to diagnose reasons for events, prescribe ways to achieve desired outcomes and forecast future scenarios.

Increasingly, federal agencies are working together to see an even bigger picture, and these collaborations are causing positive advances across the board. In an effort to improve health outcomes, strengthen food security programming and monitor land use change, the U.S. Agency for International Development partnered with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to create GeoCenter, a geospatial analysis platform. The platform was immediately useful for pinpointing the most effective methods for preventing the spread of malaria in Mozambique.

Placing information in the hands of decision-makers

What happens when tech platforms unveil the patterns behind the data? Policymakers across the government can establish smarter, evidence-based policy. Decision-makers can target interventions and focus on the biggest opportunities. Researchers can design studies with more insightful results.

EPA has been a leader in sharing data with researchers, businesses and the environmental community. For the past 20 years, we have published much of our data on EnviroFacts, a single point of access to environmental activities that may affect air, water and land across the U.S. By enabling users to find, map and analyze information, we facilitate others to make informed decisions that rely on cross-cutting information.

Health and Human Services also set a precedent by publishing an interactive map that uncovers geographic discrepancies in chronic disease among Medicare beneficiaries. The Mapping Medicare Disparities Tool provides policymakers and researchers with a quick and easy way to identify vulnerable populations and target interventions that address racial and ethnic disparities.

The Mapping Medicare Disparities (MMD) Tool is a user friendly way to explore and better understand disparities in chronic diseases.

The Mapping Medicare Disparities (MMD) Tool is a user friendly way to explore and better understand disparities in chronic diseases.

Federal employees are not the only decision-makers who benefit from a data-driven government though. Citizens benefit too! Who else better understands the important issues impacting communities across America? Opening government data has empowered citizens to track trends and make informed personal decisions.

Do you want to ensure that you’re supporting businesses with a proven commitment to labor rights? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has an online enforcement database for that. The data, covering more than four decades, include details on the roughly 90,000 OSHA inspections conducted every year.

Or do you want to understand more about the environment around your home or school? EPA’s online tool, My Environment, allows the public to learn more about air, water and land based on a search location. It also provides key resources that address local environmental challenges for citizens wanting to engage more with their communities.

Data is key to improving performance and services

The best government is one that delivers the right services, using the most cost-effective methods. By unleashing innovative technology, we are getting deeper, more meaningful insights about federal services and processes—and we are getting more efficient at delivering what citizens need most.

Take, for example, how the Internal Revenue Service is using data to enhance some of their important services. Processes for tax preparers, tax software developers and taxpayers have all improved. In addition to improving processes, their data-driven approach has resulted in a total of almost $1.7 billion dollars in revenue protected over just four years.

As another example, look at how the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) incentivizes high performance for all health insurance providers that participate in the Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) program. OPM uses a data approach to benchmark clinical quality, customer satisfaction and resource use. With this approach, OPM reinforces quality health care for all its 8.2 million FEHB federal employees, retirees and family members, and holds 97 health insurance carriers accountable.

A multiplier effect across the government

We have already seen what a tremendous impact the data-driven approach has made in the services provided by individual government agencies. What we are seeing now is the multiplier effect, sparking change across the federal government.

This multiplier effect explains the success of the Department of Commerce (DOC)’s Data Academy, which educates and empowers DOC employees to make data-driven decisions. The agency is improving its service delivery to businesses, which strengthens America’s competitiveness.

Here at EPA, data enthusiasts have formed communities of practice to build capacity to operate in a data-driven manner. For example, EPA’s Geospatial program provides regular training, workshops and webinars on Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Going forward, my team will further empower the agency with training and support to visualize and analyze data using advanced, innovative methods.

We have worked hard to create a safer, smarter, more responsive government – one that keeps pace with our quickly changing world – by better leveraging our data. With data in our toolbox, we can answer new questions, arrive at deeper insights and make better decisions to improve outcomes.

All citizens benefit when the government saves time, talent and resources; becoming more efficient paves the way for new economic activity and social benefits.

Data are some of our most valuable national assets, and we are working hard to use them even better.

 

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