We live in a time when people outside of government have better tools to build things with and extract insights from government data than governments themselves.
These tools are more plentiful, more powerful, more flexible, and less expensive than pretty much everything government employees currently have at their disposal. Governments may have exiting relationships with huge tech companies like Microsoft, IBM, Esri and others that have an array of different data tools — it doesn’t really matter.
In the race for better data tools, the general public isn‘t just beating out the public sector, its already won the race and is taking a Jenner-esque victory lap.
This isn’t a new trend.
There was a time when making a map on the internet required specialized skills and proprietary tools. Then along came Google Maps. Now tools likeMapbox, Carto and many others have democratized mapmaking, and — in many ways — given citizen map makers more powerful and easier to use tools than government employees have.
Maybe I’m emphasizing a point that is pretty obvious but for people that work inside government this has some implications. The process of using data to improve the way governments work is inextricably linked to how good governments are at engaging with outside data users.
Public sector employees that want to use data to improve how government operates, enhance the quality of public services or help governments make better decisions will need to employ a new set of skills. It won’t be good enough to simply enhance internal capacity for data analysis or app development (although that’s pretty important as well).
Governments must develop strategies for engagement that can help them direct the efforts of outside volunteers to issues or challenges that can have the broadest impact and the largest potential payoff. They’ll need to learn how to rally people to a particular cause or challenge, and then to turn those outside efforts into tangible outcomes for government agencies.
This is often a relatively new skill set for those in government IT departments and PerformanceStat programs — where government data efforts commonly reside. These departments are typically inward facing — serving the needs of other agencies — and often don’t have long traditions of outside engagement.
Its time for governments to reimagine their place in the civic technology production chain. More than ever, it is essential that governments assume their role as data stewards, enablers and conveners to bring the power of these new external tools to bear on the problems facing our communities.
For governments, outside engagement will turn out to be the most important new tool in the 21st Century data science toolkit.
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