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Preparing Government Professionals for a New Context

Challenges for Practice

The presenters and workshop participants discussed the ways that current data, analytical, and technical capabilities are changing the nature of government as a ‘user of data.’16 Several themes emerged from the presentations: (1) public problems vary widely in content and complexity and thus have different data and analytic needs, (2) stakeholders play, and will continue to play, various roles in the administration of program and policy making process, and (3) public affairs graduates, regardless of specialty or career goal, will need to work with a variety of technical and policy specialists.

Finding and using relevant data

Finding “good” data that will answer important practice and policy questions and does not cost a lot has been a perennial problem for government. Government is one of the largest collectors of data on a vast range of topics, but data are usually collected for specific purposes related to programmatic needs or compliance with rules or statute. The data are dispersed across different departments and protected by various laws regarding collection, access, management, and use. Today new sources of data from outside of government (e.g., social media networks, sensor data, or text) can often be combined with government data. Practitioners need to know how to find data sources across departmental and jurisdictional boundaries, understand the limitations of the data they find in respect to its intended use, and assess whether the use of new data sources is feasible or to what extent combining different classes of data produces the kinds of analysis they need. And, they will need to answer these kinds of questions while operating within and balancing the legal and ethical parameters of appropriate use of government information.

Applying tools and analytic techniques that fit the situation

Complex policy problems can be big or small, broad or narrow, acute or chronic, unique or ubiquitous. Different analytic tools, computational techniques, and technologies will fit different situations. The data and tools available to address an immediate crisis tend to be those readily at hand, even though they are probably incomplete or otherwise flawed. By contrast, developing a major piece of legislation is likely to occur over a longer time period with the opportunity to search out or even collect appropriate data and apply a variety of analytical techniques to test different policy choices. Some techniques, such as visualization, pattern matching, or geospatial analysis may be applicable in many kinds of policy domains and settings. Others, such as the integrated models Millennium Institute uses to forecast the challenges of sustainable development are tuned to a certain kind of problem that demands complex understanding of different scenarios now and in the future. Practitioners will need a diverse ‘tool kit’ of tools and techniques and have a good understanding of the benefits and limitations of each.

Communicating and engaging with a range of stakeholders

Workshop speakers emphasized the importance of being ‘good communicators,’ particularly about translating messy, complex problems into more meaningful and manageable areas for discussion with stakeholders and leaders. Translating the data, analysis, and models in ways that ‘keep the right balance of detail’ for the decisions at-hand, but conveys the limitations, assumptions, and holes in the data is an increasingly important skill. The recent open government movement, combined with new governance practices, promotes engagement of a range of stakeholders as essential to the policy making process. Policy modeling tools are very useful for engaging experts and lay stakeholders in the design and implications of various policy options. This kind of engagement helps create understanding, creativity, and buy-in. However, explaining to average citizens the efficacy of different policies or the limitations of data and technology in making choices is different than explaining it to experts in the field or to legislators. Workshop participants emphasized that the ability to communicate clearly and meaningfully in these different situations is an essential skill for responsible policy informatics work. Public affairs graduates need to be able to identify and address questions about the ensemble of technologies, data, and policies so that they are better able to manage new programs, innovations, and experts who use these technologies.

Working across specialties

Using technologies, analytics, or modeling to address problems requires the ability to assemble and work in multi-disciplinary teams. Public managers, data analysts, subject matter experts, and policy makers need to work together in situations where their different kinds of knowledge and expertise can be focused jointly on problems. Some actors will have more technical expertise in coding, mathematics, visualizations, modeling, and technology, others in policy relevant information, or organizational and implementation considerations. Policy informatics takes all these views into consideration and thus helps not only to identify the different kinds of expertise that are salient to a problem but to see how they can complement or conflict with one another in various policy scenarios.

16Dawes, Sharon S. "Stewardship and usefulness: Policy principles for information-based transparency." Government Information Quarterly 27, no. 4 (2010): 377-383.