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Data and the Human Condition

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lisa Saye
March 13, 2023

@March-Bridges, 2023, Photo and Title by Lisa Saye

Data is never silent. It is always telling us something. It gets us out of our own heads and helps us to see the possibilities of a particular space and of a particular outcome. Data analysis makes apparent the unequal progression of the current narrative, especially as it relates to the policy narrative. Public administrators use that narrative to argue for corrections in general law and in general programs that do not go far enough to protect and support the citizenry. Public administrators know that the political condition is not the human condition. One reason for the dissimilarity is due to the fact that the political condition is always incomplete and never actually captures humanity’s need for justice and equality. Data’s main strength is that it rounds out the static portrait that policy displays and brings out the details that really matter.

Data is not a new concept in any stretch of the imagination. We are using the word more and that should not be surprising since we are talking more and more about data platforms and systems such as AI and machine learning. But even with the most advanced computations, data collection and analysis can be very tricky. For one thing, data is as sustainable as the vessel it arrives in or as sustainable as the question it attempts to answer. Each and everyday, government collects and analyzes broad swaths of information and gives priority and immediacy to those outcomes that indicate a larger and more immediate public concern. Data helps government to identify the logistics needed to deliver public goods and to solve public problems whether the work-space is virtual or otherwise. To be sure, public administrators have always used data to measure the results of the funded versus the unfunded mandates of government. Those results go on to inform policy and program recommendations in either case on behalf of ways to make better and ways to improve the human condition of the citizenry.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, perhaps we should be asking a few questions about the role and interplay of data and government. Should data play a role in public sector planning? Should we even tie data to planning? For public administrators, good data and its results actually define and enforce objectives and goals during the policy planning stage. When government works efficiently, data helps to tailor the goals and objectives in a way that more efficiently spends the time and capital allotted to human resources and public goods. Be it a qualitative methodology of data collection, a quantitative methodology or a little of both, data helps to justify, clarify and redefine resource allocation. An example of this was seen in how governments around the world used a matrix of people and resources during COVID-19. Data fed their decisions to shape the changes to personnel and work hours during the height of the pandemic and as Covid lessened and people were able to move around more.

History is an alarm clock that has no equal and complacency shrinks the imagination. Some may agree while others may disagree, but there are no new takes on government, only new and unimagined applications of public service. Government is either good or it is not good. The ability of a public administrator to determine the right amount of government is incalculable, so access to and measurement of data is necessary. To be as close to accurate as possible, public administrators need history and imagination. History’s roadmap because it helps to show the way to best practices and lesson’s learned and imagination because it helps us to navigate the slender relations between policy and intent.

Government has always been a movement and it always will be. Each generation flavors its motion and intercedes for the future by changing the present. As public administrators, we should give ourselves spaces to dream. We must realize that dreams are more than late-night rapid eye movement. Dreams are the hinges of history and without hinges doors don’t stay on so good. When the path is clear, dreams become triumphs and policy does what it is designed to do. Our present is data-driven and that information is extremely important. But we cannot neglect what history tries to tell us just because we feel it is old news. History is powerful and imagination is its fuel. We are all still learning. But all too often, the past is always the teacher we choose to ignore.

The @March-Bridges image was taken and titled by Lisa Saye.

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye is Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at Free WheelChair Mission in Irvine, California. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected].

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