Boston Globe: Data Reform

Despite the Governor's efforts, some state data systems remain woefully behind the times. (Photo credit: greenbookblog)

Despite the Governor’s efforts, some state data systems remain woefully behind the times. (Photo credit: greenbookblog)

Reform is important, but it’s not always the programs themselves most in need of an upgrade.

A lot of the work I’ve done in Massachusetts state government has focused on innovation and accountability. I actually plan to write a similar article based on my own experiences when I have the time.

For now, this article from The Boston Globe details the challenges facing big government in a Big Data age. The most useful reforms aren’t always the most politically-obvious.

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If you were surprised to learn that the Department of Transitional Assistance’s database isn’t automatically updated when a client dies, you’ve clearly never wrestled with a government computer system. While tech whizzes in Kendall Square develop the latest in mobile apps and cloud computing, civil servants across the state work with technology that is years out of date.

Following a state audit released last week that found the agency gave $18 million in suspicious welfare payments, there have been calls for “entitlement reform.” But making poor families jump through additional hoops or restricting eligibility won’t fix the problem. We don’t need entitlement reform — we need data reform.

I’ve never seen the databases used by the Department of Transitional Assistance. But if they are anything like other government computer systems I have seen, they are clunky, slow, difficult to navigate, and prone to crashing. They are also likely built on proprietary technology, which means they are infrequently updated, don’t easily interface with the databases of other state and federal agencies, and, when they break, can only be fixed by the company that designed them.

The state auditor report, and an earlier report from the inspector general, confirm that the agency’s data systems are woefully out of date. So it’s no wonder dead people received welfare checks. The agency is filled with hardworking public servants, but if they don’t have technology capable of frequent crosschecks with other agencies or automated fraud detection, these errors are unavoidable — unless we want to pay for the staff necessary to verify every record by hand.

This is not an isolated problem. We’re living in the age of big data, yet many state and federal agencies — such as the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which is facing a backlog of more than 600,000 veterans waiting for disability benefits — still use paper applications and case files. Agencies that we want to share data — such as Department of Transitional Assistance and the Department of Revenue, or the Boston Police Department and the FBI — often encounter major technological challenges in doing so.

To fix these problems, there need to be upfront investments in technology. But as technology changes at an increasingly fast pace, it can be hard to know which specific technologies are worth the investment.

This is why state government needs to dramatically rethink its approach. Big, expensive, proprietary systems need to be replaced with off-the-shelf, open-source programs that can easily be adapted and updated with the latest technology. State agencies should adopt common data standards, preferably in concert with the federal government, to make data-sharing between agencies easier, and they should prioritize operating on platforms that can easily communicate.

States also need to recruit the talent to help with these big changes. Luckily, Massachusetts has many resources at its disposal, from brilliant student programmers at MIT to CEOs of leading technology companies. Many of these people care passionately about transparent, effective government and the power of data, but the state does a poor job of tapping that talent. It should be inviting so-called “hacktivists” to help us improve our systems.

Other states are already leading the way. Kansas increased legislative transparency, improved Web functionality for citizens and lawmakers, and saved over $850,000 a year by moving to an open-source, cloud-based system. Building a new integrated computer network through a combination of off-the-shelf systems and open-source software, the California Department of Child Support Services increased performance, improved data quality, and reduced operating costs. A group of states is creating an open-source information sharing system across justice and public safety agencies to improve coordination and reduce costs.

State employees don’t need every fancy new technological bell and whistle. But if we want them to improve service delivery, reduce waste and fraud, and improve government transparency, we do need to give them the tools they need to succeed. Otherwise, we can expect to continue losing millions of dollars in preventable waste and fraud each year.

Melissa Threadgill, a former aide in the Massachusetts Senate, studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

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