Embracing Evidence-Based Government in Idaho and Washington
An Insight from the 2015 Public Sector for the Future Summit
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The late Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz once said, “It is better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past.” The insights of a 19th century military leader might seem irrelevant to 21st century governance, but at the 2015 Public Sector for the Future Summit, Mike Teller, the Chief Information Officer of the Idaho State Tax Commission, argued that the swell of data available to public officials today creates an information overflow not dissimilar to the fog of war.

To pierce this fog, government officials must embrace data and analytics. Data analysis enables organizations to identify their strengths and weaknesses and then craft strategies to improve. It also helps leaders to respond swiftly to stakeholder demands. As Teller noted, officials can marshal data when giving an 18-minute presentation to the legislature, when conducting an 18-day analysis to develop a budget request, and when trying to seize an elected official’s attention in the narrow 18-month window between election cycles.

Unfortunately, there’s a steep learning curve to becoming an evidence-based organization. To illuminate this, Teller introduced two organizations that have had to employ tact and force to overcome resistance at opposite ends of the “uptake-edge” spectrum. Operating on the “uptake” side, the Idaho State Tax Commission (ISTC) has had to address internal pushback against efforts to upgrade its approach to data management. Positioned on the “edge” end of the spectrum, Results Washington has had to obtain buy-in from internal and external stakeholders to sustain an initiative to upgrade the state’s performance management system. Together they show that in introducing evidence-based government, public officials need to heed not just the fog of data but also the often-stormy climate of state and local politics.

The Idaho State Tax Commission

In 2013, the Idaho Legislature commissioned a report from the state’s Office of Performance Management that found that ISTC needed to modernize its data management. ISTC’s four commissioners heeded the legislature’s advice and direction to take positive steps to ensure that Idahoans were receiving the best service.

The response from ISTC leadership was swift. In two years, ISTC modernized the legacy tax processing system, “GenTax;” hired a data scientist; and polled citizens about their views of the commission. But as ISTC became more data savvy, its leaders encountered resistance from their own veteran personnel who preferred the status quo. Consequently, ISTC leaders invested more in not just data (as the state’s Office of Performance Management had recommended) but also their team. Personnel-related reforms included bringing together staff from different groups within the agency (a process that ISTC leaders hoped would breakdown “silos”), investing in young talent, and training staff on new software programs. The hope was that, taken together, these reforms would change how the agency was viewed. “We tried to create three words,” explained ISTC Chairman Richard Jackson, “Our people, our process, and our image.”

Blending reform and personnel development bore fruit. After decades of employing staff to enter data, ISTC automated this process. Responding to public feedback, ISTC increased phone support during high-traffic periods. Finally, ISTC has implemented projects to improve the audit and appeals processes, and has established a governance council to “perfect” data quality.

ISTC has invested tens of thousands of hours in these endeavors and will have to persevere to sustain them. Nonetheless, it can take comfort in the fact that it is doing more to help Idahoans and that it has leveraged data to solidify its position. As ISTC Commissioner Ken Roberts explained, “If you have data, it’s power.”

We tried to create three words. Our people, our process, and our image.

Richard Jackson
Chairman, Idaho State Tax Commission

Results Washington

When Washington Governor Jay Inslee took office in 2013, the state was struggling with performance management. The state had a long history of improvement efforts, with much of that work occurring within agencies or divisions. Additionally, the existing Government Management and Accountability Program (GMAP) had rankled some leaders because it was mandatory and sometimes seen as punitive. One state official explained, “there was about a 50-50 like-hate for [GMAP].”

Consequently, when Inslee established Results Washington, a new performance management system, he and his staff focused on taking the best of past efforts and identifying goals that mattered most to Washingtonians. To that end, the governor’s team met with more than 50 state agency directors and dozens of stakeholder groups, including representatives of business, labor, the environment, education, health and public safety. It was critical to vet the goals with these partners, Results Washington Director Wendy Korthuis-Smith said, to make sure that “everyone was pulling on the rope in the same direction.” The result was more than 200 goals and indicators in five key areas: education, the economy, the environment, healthy and safe communities, and effective government.

The next step was to create a “goal council” for each of the five areas. Every council consisted of 12-15 state agency directors, and each had the power to bring in partners as needed. Goal council members were tasked with coming up with data-driven strategies to make progress on the their group’s overarching goal and the different objectives embedded within it. The councils meet monthly to assess progress, discuss strategies, and design collaborative solutions. Each month, the governor meets with a different goal council – plus invited partners, customers and stakeholders – to discuss progress. These “results review” meetings are open to the public and televised.

Results Washington officials simultaneously reached out to local leaders, a dialogue that helped them to realize quickly that they needed to demonstrate and disseminate results. Rich Roesler, Results Washington’s Engagement Manager, recalled one exchange in which a school superintendent said, “Until you show me some results…I’m just going to keep pressing the delete button when I get your emails.” Results Washington officials have therefore shared data, highlighted savings and service improvements, and documented results quantitatively and qualitatively.

To Korthuis-Smith, employing diverse metrics has been crucial to tracking progress on the organization’s big-picture objectives. “We could measure things that were really easy,” she explained, “but [the governor] said, ‘let’s go bold, let’s look at poverty, let’s look at graduation rates, let’s look at clean air. Let’s look at the things that Washingtonians care most about.’”

In less than two years, this approach is showing significant promise. Results Washington and its partners have demonstrated improvements in high school graduation rates, air quality, child vaccinations, youth smoking, worker safety, teen pregnancy rates, speed-related traffic deaths, and recidivism among juvenile offenders. Meanwhile, at dozens of state agencies, employee-driven changes have led to faster services, better outcomes, streamlined processes, easier-to-understand forms, cost-avoidance, more transparency, and higher customer satisfaction.

Results Washington has, as Korthuis-Smith explained, created “a sandbox” in which groups that had been operating in silos have come together to “innovate.”

Lessons from the Uptake and Edge

What can leaders pushing for evidence-based government learn from the experiences of Idaho and Washington officials?

First, in trying to introduce evidence-based government, leaders face resistance, but the source of that opposition varies depending on an organization’s place on the “uptake-edge” spectrum. On the “Uptake” side, leaders are introducing evidence-based government within their organizations and therefore encounter internal pushback. For example, in transforming the organization’s operating procedures, ISTC leaders had to overcome the hesitation of older staff members. By contrast, a group on the “edge” is focused on spreading evidence-based government throughout a system and is therefore prone to encounter external opposition. Results Washington is a case in point. In trying to enhance statewide performance management, it had to assuage the concerns of state agency heads, labor and business leaders, and local officials. As the scope of reform expands, so too does the breadth of opposition.

Second, leaders pressing for evidence-based government should balance tact and pressure to overcome resistance, regardless of the source. When ISTC’s commissioners realized that veteran staff had reservations, they perceptively emphasized the importance of their “people;” at the same time, strong support from all four commissioners suggested that staff had a tough road to hoe if they did not fall in line. Similarly, when Results Washington leaders realized that other state officials were wary of performance-based government, they thoughtfully sought those officials’ input; nonetheless, Governor Inslee’s commitment to Results Washington demonstrated that not cooperating would be costly. In Idaho and Washington, leaders mitigated opposition with diplomacy and muscle.

This hints at a broader point: evidence-based organizations cannot rely only on data; they need to manage relationships and agendas, too. The tools for navigating the fog of war have evolved, but people and the incentives that drive them remain paramount.

We could measure things that were really easy, but the governor said, ‘Let’s go bold, let’s look at poverty, let’s look at graduation rates, let’s look at clean air. Let’s look at the things that Washingtonians care most about.’

Wendy Korthuis-Smith
Director, Results Washington


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