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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Erin Mullenix
January 15, 2016
The “data wave” has gained much attention as organizations understand its importance in making carefully planned decisions. Often the problem researchers have is identifying the right type of data and analytics to support local projects. Overall, there is not a shortage of data. But isolating data that can inform effective decision-making on a specific project can be challenging. Distilling the right data and research within the right set of circumstances, conditions and context is critical.
Projects that require complex research are often most successful when they start with a clear strategic direction, have a defined scope, have an effective data collection or analysis plan and are properly integrated and communicated. Research that is backed by not only credible data and proper methods, but is also clearly visioned and communicated can be instrumental to either predicting or avoiding problems before they happen, or to the overall success of the project.
Clear Strategic Direction & Defined Project Scope
Research and analytics professionals can collate and crunch data sets to illustrate trends and illuminate issues. Various data collection methods can be adapted; however, putting those into context with a clear understanding of the project objective is important. Undoubtedly, multiple stakeholders and interested parties have interest in local projects, particularly those funded with local tax dollars. Clarity around why research is needed, without bias, and the underlying questions it is being conducted to answer is important. When the project purpose is not clear to the researcher, they are best served by asking relevant questions for clarification before beginning a project. This planning helps with both cost and project efficiency.
A defined project scope is also valuable at the onset of a research project. Understanding the purpose and scope will keep costs controlled where possible, and identify the most important research questions to be answered. With this in mind, the implementation and management of the overall project will be easier.
Data Collection and Analysis
Government and other organizations regularly collect useful information on a variety of local issues. This information helps locals understand how taxes are collected and spent. Sometimes, this information can be distilled to fit research objectives, though often it is through many steps of processing and cleaning the data so that it can be most useful.
Sometimes, however, data does not already exist and a research study must be conducted to gain the additional insight needed to make an effective decision. Careful planning must go into this process to ensure unbiased results and an ending format conducive to extracting meaningful results. Part of the reason it is so important to plan carefully, in accordance with the project strategic direction and scope, is so that the data measured during the research process can be usable.
Tapping local resources and organizations to help with the planning processes can uncover new ideas to consider, give a history of what was researched before and involve key subject matter experts or partners throughout the process. All of these can contribute to the success of the analysis phase, as well as the implementation phase.
Aligned Implementation and Communication Plan
Data could tell us to support an idea, or conversely, to avoid a certain direction. Either way, it is helpful to examine available research and data before making decisions. Sometimes data is not used when it may have helped support the local decision-making process.
While there are often valid reasons why the research result cannot be supported or achieved, other times it is simply poorly communicated or misunderstood. Cost can absolutely be a prohibitive factor, as can the political or socioeconomic climate or timing of a project. However, sometimes the measurements we take simply have trouble lifting off the page. The value in detailed research is when we can use data to illustrate meaningfully the impact various proposals would have on our communities. When data fails to tell the local story, it also becomes difficult to manage.
Part of the “local story” idea is achieved through communications. Putting research results in simplified terms so that the public can easily understand the findings is helpful. Research that is conveyed visually may also help in relaying an understanding of the findings and recommendations.
Author: Erin Mullenix directs research at the Iowa League of Cities. In her role, she provides a wealth of local government finance research and support to local communities. Her areas of study were in public administration, industrial engineering and Spanish. Erin can be reached at [email protected].