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Business intelligence in the federal government

Proper analysis and accurate interpretation of data are essential "In God we trust; all others bring data."

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

The underlying principles I would like to emphasize with regard to Business Intelligence (BI in the Federal Government are:

  • The need is both important and urgent;
  • there is vast potential in the government’s data collections;
  • the cost of not doing it, or not doing it in a professional and timely manner, is very high;
  • there is often a significant ethical component.

Let us explore these principles, since many of them will be involved in our future discussions within the B-EYE-Network channel.  

The need for BI in government is both important and urgent. 

BI is another name for analytics. It is about extracting meaning from data. This covers a wide range, of course, but at its core lays the basic reality that without business intelligence, analysis, we have nothing but mountains of useless bits and bytes. Think of how little value the Library of Congress has to someone who cannot read. Therefore, the campaign for BI is nothing more and nothing less, than a literacy campaign for those who want to derive value from their data. You cannot benefit from the wealth of captured data unless you understand BI. 

Needless to say, business intelligence is important in all fields of endeavor and sectors. It is of particular importance, however, to the public sector in general and the Federal government in particular. Why? Because the stakes are so high! 

First, the problems that the Federal government addresses affect us all. As taxpayers, we all share in paying for the attempted solutions. In almost all cases, these problems entail the need for analysis and understanding before massive spending programs are launched. 

Furthermore, it is clear in this day and age that the place one goes to identify and understand situations is the data; and proper analysis and accurate interpretation of that data are essential prerequisites for intelligent action. As a member of Congress is reported to have said, relative to someone’s weak testimony during a hearing, “In God we trust; all others bring data.” 

There is vast potential in the government’s data collections.

The Federal government currently has the largest collections of data in the world; and, in my opinion, the most valuable. Just think about the wealth that lies in the data stored at the National Center for Health Statistics, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the National Agricultural Statistical Service, the Energy Information Administration or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to name but a few relevant agencies. 

Let us just focus on the decennial census; that is constitutionally mandated, which we must undergo every ten years. Yes, the principal reason for doing it, the Founding Fathers said, was to be able to underpin representative democracy, their chosen experiment in national governance. We need to know how many of us there are and where we live in order to create congressional districts and allocate proportional voting power in the Congress. But in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States the Founding Fathers actually said: “Representation and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers . . .” In their foresight to note that “taxation” should also be proportional to numbers they opened the door to the collection of data from which flow today the demographic wealth that is found in the Census. This data is central to our ability to govern ourselves intelligently.  

If there were no U.S. Census, our nation would face a scenario where decisions on the allocation of resources to address national priorities are made with minimal information. This would lead to schools being built where there are few children, or roads constructed that lead to where people do not want to go.  

The cost of not doing BI in government, or not doing it in a professional and timely manner, is very high. 

The truth of this principle is most obvious when we look at Homeland Security. Fewer controversies have stirred more debate in the post-9/11 world than the question of whether the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon could have been prevented. The speculation has centered on whether our intelligence and law enforcement communities had the adequate information technology (IT) tools to have identified the terrorist plans, located the planners and taken preemptive action. But the discussion, especially after the Report from the 9/11 Commission was published, should not center on IT tools, but rather on whether we had the ability to do the appropriate BI and share it among the different agencies involved. That was the crux of the matter and it is difficult to argue against the statement that we could have done better. Hence the cost of not doing BI in government, and doing it well, is extremely high. 

There is often a significant ethical component that is tightly coupled to doing BI in government 

Lastly, we must face the fact that when the government does BI, it often moves into a space where we as a society feel uncomfortable. Nothing dramatizes this better than the issue of privacy, which we know is strongly tied to BI no matter whether you’re in government or industry. 

Yet privacy legislation, applying to government and the legislative approaches to marketplace privacy, is a study in contrasts. For the purposes of privacy standards, our society is seen as comprised of the “public” sphere to include everything governmental; and the “private” sphere covering everything else.  In this liberal conception of the world, government is seen as posing the major threat to individual privacy.  Furthermore, it presupposes that to allow government to legislate and regulate privacy relations in the marketplace is to invite government meddling into private relations, thus extending its power.  The privacy of citizens with respect to the government was viewed by our society as a necessary precaution to avoid authoritarian government. 

Beyond privacy, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution guards against unreasonable search and seizure. This also weighs heavily on the issue of BI in government. In effect, going back to the homeland security front, the current debate over the Patriot Act and the need to balance national security and civil liberties looms large in relation to BI. All these issues arise from the fact that the government collects sensitive data from citizens, often mandated by law and which may have the potential to be misused. Consider the potential harm that could come from misusing databases which store court records, tax information, physician malpractice cases, or medical records.  There are ethical implications that we cannot ignore. 

Over the next few months, the government channel will explore these matters in greater detail.  I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at [email protected].

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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