Analytics In Government

My friend and IIA colleague Eric McNulty is right in his recent post that there is a lot of talk about analytics in Washington these days. I was there for a SAS event a couple of weeks ago, and it was interesting to think about all the areas where it’s popping up. Eric mentioned health care, financial reform, and carbon limits as areas where analytics will be influential, and I’d argue there are even more examples. Education, national intelligence, benefit fraud, and crime prevention all come to mind as areas where analytics are increasingly driving activity.

The question, of course, is whether Washington will deliver on all this analytical promise. A few years ago Sirkka Jarvenpaa of the University of Texas and I did a report on analytics in government . At the time, we had doubts about certain aspects of the government environment with regard to analytics. We questioned, for example, whether there were enough leaders with analytical orientations—a problem in the private sector too, of course, but perhaps even more pronounced in government. We questioned whether large, complex, multi-faceted organizations—e.g., the 16 agencies charged with some aspect of US national intelligence—would ever be able to take an enterprise-level perspective on data and analytics. Also, would government organizations be able to come up with the resources to do analytics?

At the Washington meeting in June, many of these issues came up in the post-dinner discussion. They clearly haven’t gone away, even though the administration in Washington now is obviously more inclined to data-based decisions. One defense contractor at the event, however, raised an interesting wrinkle. He said that while the Obama administration likes analytical decisions, it is less inclined than its predecessor administrations to hire outside help to manage data and generate analysis.

I’d be very happy if Eric McNulty were right that “the U.S. government is pushing analytics to the fore.” However, I’m not ready to declare analytical victory yet. Obama is talking the analytical talk, but will the rest of Washington walk the analytical walk? What’s your view?