The Causes, Costs and Consequences of Bad Government Data

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene in Governing: “Data is the lifeblood of state government. It’s the crucial commodity that’s necessary to manage projects, avoid fraud, assess program performance, keep the books in balance and deliver services efficiently. But even as the trend toward greater reliance on data has accelerated over the past decades, the information itself has fallen dangerously short of the mark. Sometimes it doesn’t exist at all. But worse than that, all too often it’s just wrong.

There are examples everywhere. Last year, the California auditor’s office issued a report that looked at accounting records at the State Controller’s Office to see whether it was accurately recording sick leave and vacation credits. “We found circumstances where instead of eight hours, it was 80 and in one case, 800,” says Elaine Howle, the California state auditor. “And the system didn’t have controls to say that’s impossible.” The audit found 200,000 questionable hours of leave due to data entry errors, with a value of $6 million.

Mistakes like that are embarrassing, and can lead to unequal treatment of valued employees. Sometimes, however, decisions made with bad data can have deeper consequences. In 2012, the secretary of environmental protection in Pennsylvania told Congress that there was no evidence the state’s water quality had been affected by fracking. “Tens of thousands of wells have been hydraulically fractured in Pennsylvania,” he said, “without any indication that groundwater quality has been impacted.”

But by August 2014, the same department published a list of 248 incidents of damage to well water due to gas development. Why didn’t the department pick up on the water problems sooner? A key reason was that the data collected by its six regional offices had not been forwarded to the central office. At the same time, the regions differed greatly in how they collected, stored, transmitted and dealt with the information. An audit concluded that Pennsylvania’s complaint tracking system for water quality was ineffective and failed to provide “reliable information to effectively manage the program.”

When data is flawed, the consequences can reach throughout the entire government enterprise. Services are needlessly duplicated; evaluation of successful programs is difficult; tax dollars go uncollected; infrastructure maintenance is conducted inefficiently; health-care dollars are wasted. The list goes on and on. Increasingly, states are becoming aware of just how serious the problem is. “The poor quality of government data,” says Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor, “is probably the most important emerging trend for government executives, across the board, at all levels.”

Just how widespread a problem is data quality? In aGoverning telephone survey with more than 75 officials in 46 states, about 7 out of 10 said that data problems were frequently or often an impediment to doing their business effectively. No one who worked with program data said this was rarely the case. (View the full results of the survey in this infographic.)…(More)

See also: Bad Data Is at All Levels of Government and The Next Big Thing in Data Analytics