How to Speed Up Federal Decision Making

Sharing live data – instead of canned reports – at senior-level meetings can accelerate decision-making times 10-fold, saving organizations both time and money, say government insiders who have made the change. But getting live data into leaders’ hands is only part of the equation: Correctly shaping the organization to ensure the right people are involved in each decision is just as critical.

Top-level Pentagon acquisition chiefs begin meetings with a 90-second brief, then start asking questions and delving into the numbers. The process has had a dramatic impact on how information is reviewed and understood, said Mark Krzysko, deputy director, acquisition resources and analysis; enterprise information for Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall.

Just 27 miles away, at the National Security Agency (NSA), decisions that might have taken up to seven months now can be made in as little as seven days, according to Marty Trevino, an organizational architect and senior strategist at NSA.

What both organizations have in common is they share instant visualizations of live data to accelerate the decision process.

Krzysko and Trevino come at the issue from vastly different perspectives. Krzysko is a career defense acquisition officer, charged with wrestling data for the department’s biggest programs into understandable form. Trevino, an organizational scientist with a doctorate in business intelligence, sees data and organizational structure as fundamentally intertwined. “You cannot do the technology without the foundational and social structures to make it work,” he said.

The two shared their experiences at the ATARC Federal Big Data Summit June 30 in Washington.

Consider financial reports, Trevino said. “In most government agencies, reports are the food du jour — annual, monthly, weekly,” he continued. “We wanted to get away from that. We wanted to be able to pull data live and dynamically to answer questions. So this year, we basically threw out most of the reports and stood up user interfaces designed for people who were looking at them.”

Instead of reports produced by financial analysts, managers learned how to dig for the data they needed as they went.

“It’s the difference between reports and dynamic discovery,” Trevino said. The payoff: “We were reducing decision cycles by thousands of hours. At every multi-hour meeting, we were making decisions.” The old process – beginning with a report, determining what other data was needed, building a new spreadsheet, deriving an answer and finally putting it into a presentation and holding another meeting was no longer necessary. Bypassing that labor-intensive process saved everyone time.

Krzysko said the same thing happens at Pentagon program reviews.

“Having live data in an environment in front of the undersecretary … and having a senior leader that is attuned to that has been phenomenal,” he said. While briefs are still a part of the process, the undersecretary and his advisors can pose questions and generate answers at program reviews on the fly, discovering the information they feel they need at that moment, rather than what a briefer thought they might need a week earlier. “It’s amazing what that does to an organization.”

He continues to look for additional data sets across the department and beyond that can be rolled into the Defense Acquisition Visualization Environment (DAVE). It encapsulates his live data and tracks some 200 of the largest defense programs in minute detail.

Accessing, protecting, shaping, organizing and categorizing data are still major organizational challenges. Personally identifiable information must be protected and the rules for managing controlled unclassified information remain murky. But the power of the data for decision making couldn’t be clearer.

Beyond the Data
Trevino said the way forward depends on both intelligent use of data and improved organizational structures. From his vantage point, organizational challenges have less to do with a lack of data or analytical capability, than in the way they are organized.

“Why is it that some organizations function so beautifully – year after year, highly productive, highly innovative and agile – and others simply cannot find their behind with a GPS?” Trevino asked. “There are some teams within government that are fantastic, and others that congregate at the coffee machine and get nothing done for years. Why is that?”

After several years focusing on “fusing data sets with strategy and organizational design,” he is convinced that getting the right people involved in the decision-making process is often harder than it looks.

When Trevino’s team at NSA – “a dozen people ranging from system architects, human capital experts, strategy people, and a whole hodgepodge” – started asking data scientists why their data and reports weren’t making more of a difference, the answer came back loud and clear. “They say, ‘I don’t have a voice,” he said. “‘We do really awesome stuff but it never gets seen by the decision makers.’”

That’s where structure comes in. “The data is not the problem. The tools are not the problem. The problem is the organization’s design,” Trevino said. “With the rate of change in the global economic system, six-month, seven-month decision cycles don’t work anymore.

“So if I can take total data, fuse it together with state-of-the-art business intelligence platforms, if I can make visual analytics the language of the e-suite, I can take a seven-month cycle and reduce it down to seven days,” he added. “That’s a massive strategic advantage – to any organization.”

Data can inform decisions, but presenting spreadsheets to decision makers is frustrating. Leaders want to use data to dive their decisions, but emotions can skew their interpretations, undermining the process. Since most people are visual learners, visualizing the data makes it clearer and easier to understand. That in turn, overcomes emotions.

“We have to get away from ‘I feel,’ ‘I believe,’ ‘I think,’ and replace that with ‘The data clearly shows,’” Trevino said.

Krzysko agreed. Once the data is in hand, he said, “leadership has to be in position to consume it, the organization needs to be in position to consume it.”

It’s a fundamental shift, he said. “We’ve gone from an industrial age to an information age.” In every organization, leaders need to be asking the question: “Do our policies, procedures and organizational structures allow us to take advantage of data? To extract data? … Can we look at a complex program and understand what data we need?”

The unspoken, but clear implication: If you can’t answer those questions affirmatively, your organization isn’t built for 21st century decision making.

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