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The Critical Importance of Data in Decisionmaking Situations

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

By Peter Melan
September 8, 2021

The nation is facing a pandemic. News outlets report staggering statistics almost to the hour. State departments of health are constantly adjusting numbers based on facts from hospitals, EMS agencies and various levels of government. The public deserves the right to receive information about the severity of the problem. People look to the media for updates on what the plan is to help contain the spread of the virus and mitigate future loss.

In a time of crisis, the reliance on accurate data and its reporting frequency are critical to decisionmakers. Timely data sent to the repositories with scripts run to analyze and prepare for visualization by all forms of leaders is essential to the situation. As data is reported more often and not withheld, the public begins to entrust their leaders with confidence in their ability to make mission-critical decisions that are lifesaving and protect the public from future harm.

In the public sector, there is an age-old assumption that the industry is not prepared in critical situations to handle the crisis at any given moment in time. Future research will allow scholars to look back on this particular situation and analyze the particulars of what happened. What they will find in journals and studies is how someone else could have done the job differently or analyzed a dataset using another type of statistical model and come up with a different solution. That is all well and good, but it would not happen without the presence of high-quality data and analysts to interpret the information.

The reliance on quality data is essential to the overall success of handling any crisis. The saying, “Garbage in, garbage out,” reigns true, and if the data is meaningless or regarded as potentially questionable, then the reporting will receive the same treatment. Questions on the accuracy may result in decisions made that are potentially harmful to citizens, who are the primary focus on being protected during any pandemic or crisis.

The systems play an integral part in the reliability of data. Data can, and always will, require cleansing in order to report on facts accurately. Perfectly planned systems still require data manipulation in order to present the findings to stakeholders.

The amount of preparation is necessary in order to create an effective routine that streamlines the process and saves precious time in reporting the information. Minor issues such as decimal placement or not dividing correctly between two numbers to accurately present a figure that artificially inflates a reporting element can cause a massive reaction when, in fact, it was merely a mathematical error.

The public sector has made great strides in the world of collecting, disseminating and reporting on data. Crime initiatives such as CompStat in New York made significant strides in providing data not only to the public, but also for internal purposes such as resource allocation to problem neighborhoods. Although not directly related, in cities such as Baltimore, CitiStat enhanced the capabilities of data by utilizing information collected from all departments to manage all city services and allow for constituents to submit complaints directly instead of maneuvering through bureaucratic red tape.

With the advent of cloud-based systems and software developers who have increased in number and functionality, the cost to municipalities is negligible compared to wanting a homegrown system that is cost-prohibitive. The system chosen must meet all needs by not only administrators, but also the end-users who are responsible for daily usage. Coincidentally, most of these systems allow for exports of data that are real-time and easily imported into other data visualization tools such as Tableau. The situation becomes problematic when there is data to analyze but no one to create the reports. The information must be easily comprehensible by all levels in an organization. Unfortunately, with bounded rationality rearing its ugly head, careful consideration is required in order to provide adequate information in a short amount of time to decisionmakers and render a decision quickly.

The world is changing by the minute. Data as the foundation for rendering decisions improves our ability to prove legitimacy on policy changes or enable lawmakers to legislate effectively. Decisions such as locking down states or enforcing shelter-in-place mandates do not come easy to executives. The data requires precision, and its reliance on accuracy is critical. With social media and the constant need to immediately report the information, the data must be unequivocally correct. The country is currently in a pandemic; the public will look to its elected leaders to provide guidance and decide what is best for the citizens. When society begins to question the validity of data, the results become irrelevant if the information is not accurate. As systems continue to improve, and the quality of data is exceedingly reliable, it is imperative that utilizing the information collected is reported and used to make critical decisions without a doubt. As administrators, it is incumbent to understand how crucial data is in the overall success of the organization and the importance of reliability to decisionmakers.

Author: Peter Melan is the owner of PolityInc.com a consulting firm specializing in local government, with an emphasis on data-driven decisions. He is a second-term councilperson in Easton, PA. Peter is also a public speaker and a writer for several online publications. He is currently enrolled at West Chester University in the doctoral program, focusing on public administration.

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