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The Dangers of Misrepresenting Data

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

By Peter Melan
June 9, 2020 

There is an ongoing debate, exacerbated by the current pandemic, that the data being released by hospitals and the government is inaccurate and contains a political bias. Rumors swirl throughout the media that hospitals code patients with COVID-19 diagnoses in order to obtain additional insurance reimbursements. The state governments are supposedly skewing numbers to artificially increase the number of patients and incorrectly report on nursing home cases. There is a litany of accusations regarding data and reporting based on political ideologies, where one group is accusing the other of inflicting as much economic harm to influence the upcoming election. But in reality, what is the ultimate harm done to the public when the data is interpreted as wrong?

For the first weeks of the pandemic, data released by the states had limitations and did not contain substantive information. Initially, the ability to delve into the details did not exist until the cases increased and the metrics increasingly improved. As the pandemic progressed and it was obvious that governments were reluctant to open given their neighbors relaxed restrictions, the public became outraged and questions began to arise regarding motive and intent.

As public administrators, it truly is a responsibility to not only provide accurate information but also to ensure no bias is attached, especially politically. Coincidentally, scholars mentioned this type of independence during the time of Woodrow Wilson, where the field of public administration is a field of business, essentially legitimizing the concept of separating politics from the administration. Leonard White then writes about the conventional wisdom of administrative theory where he summarizes that politics and administration were separate and management could be studied scientifically to discover the best methods of operation. Public administration was capable of becoming a value-free science and a politically neutral administration should be focused exclusively on attainment of economy and efficiency in government.

David Rosenbloom differed from previous theories and offered a more realistic perception on politics and public administration. There are three distinct approaches to public administrative theory; managerial, political and legal. In today’s application, public administration is a hybrid of all the methodologies previously discussed, however one particular difference is a major shift in theory that President Wilson stated politics would be separated from administration. Although the concept should be widely accepted, in practical terms it is not. Rosenbloom authored that, “The political approach to public administration stresses the values of representativeness, political responsiveness and accountability through elected officials to the citizenry.” Public administration, although preferably separate from politics, is a driving force behind politics. Decisions based on the managerial approach subsequently affect the political approach, so the delicateness of a decision is often weighed in favor of the elected officials out of concern for their reputation and avoidance of negative publicity in the eyes of the public.

In reality, Rosenbloom unintentionally predicted the future in which the current pandemic is indicative of situations where decisions made were not to negatively affect elected officials. Unfortunately, the reality is much different from Rosenbloom’s theory and how data is used to effectively protect the citizens and safely chart a course for the future.

There seems to be no legitimate way to remove politics from the interpretation and usage of data for the greater good. It is no mystery that given the current situation, and how divisive it became over the course of the pandemic, that society has come to this juncture. When state governments are accused of mysteriously removing data reported by county departments of health or the inadvertent elimination of certain figures, citizens begin to question legitimacy and intent. Accountability for the mishaps is absent and the occasional missed press conference by elected officials to report on the current events becomes a divisive back-and-forth between factions.

There are varying schools of thought on the amount of information disseminated to the public. The determination is usually made from administrators, who often have their elected leaders in the forefront of any decisions made. They must strike a balance on how to report on the facts that may have adverse effects on the citizens. Although the debate surrounding the information is open for discussion, the accuracy and quality should be irrefutable. When the data is a source for organizations to utilize for their operations, it imperative that the quality of the information is defensible and correct. As seen in the current pandemic, the data flow helped varying agencies develop staffing plans and enact policies to protect patients, families and staff. Without the corresponding data, the downward effects of inadequate policies potentially have lasting consequences that are potentially detrimental to the overall health and safety of citizens. It is imperative that administrators take the extra precautions in ensuring the data is reliable and trustworthy or face the consequence of causing irreparable harm on constituents.

Author: Peter Melan is a local government consultant, a councilperson in the City of Easton, PA, public speaker and author for several online publications. He is in his final year of graduate studies in Public Administration at Ohio University. Peter is known for his creativity in solving problems using non-traditional methods, and for his experience in project management and data analytics. For more info visit: https://www.petermelan.com

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