Solving Problems and Improving Performance through Data Analytics


From GovExec:

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, Robert King was working in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Chief Readiness Support Office. During and after the storm, King and his office had to assess the damage to their assets across a wide urban geography that was experiencing a tumultuous natural disaster. This made taking stock of resources difficult, to say the least.

“There was a lot of calling,” he explained in a recent Viewcast with Grant Thornton Public Sector and federal analytics experts.

Lately, DHS has focused on consolidating data from disparate source systems within the organization, making it easier to provide integrated snapshots of information across the enterprise, especially at times when the information’s needed most, King said.

U.S. Government Accountability Office Director Vijay D’Souza also noticed the benefits of uniting datasets in a very basic but informative way when GAO assessed the federal government’s risk to earthquakes by merging FEMA hazard maps, federal property data from the General Services Administration, and workforce data from the Office of Personnel Management.

“This was static, but what if it was updated?” he mused.

Sharing the “what if?” attitude was Dominic Sales, Deputy Associate Administrator at GSA. Sales said that there were “1,000 flowers blooming around the agency” in terms of analytics and that he’s especially hopeful about the growth of predictive capabilities, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Though he acknowledges growth will be incremental, Sales is confident in the future.

“We are limited by our own imagination at this point,” he said.

But perhaps the magnitude of living up to one’s imagination—or just the idea of data preparation—feels intimidating. Shiva Verma, Principal and Decision Analytics Lead at Grant Thornton Public Sector, said that worrying about errors in data is a normal concern, especially considering the amount of data that organizations like DHS, GAO and GSA have to comb through and organize in order to provide reliable analytical models. But it doesn’t mean agencies have to stand still.

Data hygiene is important but shouldn’t unreasonably limit you, Verma said. Too often leaders are caught up in having completely perfect datasets.

“You can never have perfect data,” Verma said. And waiting for that “perfect data” comes at a cost.

The cost is inaction. The best move for an agency with data to use and problems to solve is to connect with data scientists who can help them move forward.

When setting up models, Varma said he has found success with a “center of excellence” approach, through which agencies build certain tools on a central basis with the enterprise in mind. When complete, those solutions are released for consumption while the center for excellence works on the “next big thing.”

That way, “there’s somebody always thinking about what’s next,” Verma said. “At the same time, you’re not getting clogged answering day-to-day questions.”

At GAO, D’Souza has had a chance to observe analytics at varying levels of maturity. He and his team have done everything from assess the usability of raw data in an agency to evaluate sophisticated analytic models generated in-house.

Of the adoption process, D’Souza said he believes that it relies on getting employees to constantly turn to analytics as a possible solution when they encounter an issue.

“The idea is not to make everybody in the agency a data analytics expert but to get people to think, hey, maybe I can use data analytics to solve a problem,” D’Souza said.

Since dealing with the chaotic Sandy situation and its aftermath, King said he’s seen an uptick in DHS’s analytic capabilities, which he believes will bode well for similarly stressful, decision-dependent scenarios in the future.

“Analytics changes the narrative,” he said. “Instead of asking for info, we’re immediately assessing the information.”

And those assessments will help leaders make more informed decisions throughout their organizations, Verma said.

“That’s when things get really interesting,” he said. “You start getting a return on your investment in all the data you’ve collected, the investment you’ve made in people and the time you’ve spent creating this framework.”

For more information about decision analytics in the federal government, watch the full Viewcast here.

This content is made possible by our sponsor. The editorial staff of Government Executive was not involved in its preparation.

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Want to make a difference in the lives of those in need?

In very rare circumstances, a disaster of extraordinary size (such as September 11 and Katrina) may occur that would require DHS departmental components and other federal agencies to augment FEMA’s workforce. In exceptional circumstances such as these, we will need a volunteer employee force, known as the Surge Capacity Force (SCF), that is willing to be deployed to a disaster location to help FEMA with response and recovery support.

SCF logo--full size

The SCF program is seeking volunteers who want to help when the need is greatest in support of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, including catastrophic incidents. The SCF program is currently being rolled out throughout the department and will then be rolled out government-wide. All volunteers will be trained and utilized in three FEMA program support elements — National Processing Service Centers, Cadre Support, & Community Support. The cadre support element offers opportunities for members to consider that may be in-line with current job series, skills and abilities.

This site provides answers to frequently asked questions, training requirements for the program and links to training courses, how you might be deployed, and much more. To complete your enrollment, you will need to provide your home address, email, and emergency contact information to be entered into FEMA’s Deployment Tracking System and complete a 2-hour responder orientation webinar. This data will be protected with the highest level of security. Please contact your agency POC for more information.

With your help, we can be ready to respond to any event or to simultaneous events, no matter how large the impact.

Submit questions to or call the Surge Capacity Call Center at 855-377-3362

Read stories from SCF volunteers, as they share their experience supporting Sandy operations.

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OMB Prepares to Ratchet Up Enterprise Risk Management

Risk Mgmt

For more than a year, the Office of Management and Budget has been readying an update of the seminal Circular A-123, which provides guidance on agency internal financial controls.

Expected in April, the new version will likely impose new requirements that agencies formalize the discipline known as enterprise risk management. “The timing is really important,” according to longtime agency financial executive W. Todd Grams, now director of the Federal Government Services Practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP. He began a stint this month as president of the Association for Federal Enterprise Risk Management, a professional development group that advocates the approach.

OMB, which has circulated drafts and made several promises on timing for the revised circular, declined on Monday to set a release date.

“We’re at a point in the federal government where agencies are facing the greatest risks ever for their mission and must consider the protection of their reputation,” said Grams, a former chief financial officer of the Veterans Affairs Department who has also worked at OMB, the Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. As examples of current risks, he cited budget cuts, intense oversight, leadership turnover, cyberattacks and an Office of Personnel Management Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey from 2015 in which only 61 percent of respondents said they believe they can disclose a suspected violation of law or regulation without fear of reprisal for blowing the whistle.

“Enterprise risk management is a way to begin to have these risks elevated,” Grams told Government Executive. “Program leadership conveys to management and employees that it’s okay to raise risks, that it’s actually encouraged, that it’s even a bad thing to sit on risks.”

Throughout his federal career, Grams added, “being clean and open about risk was a good thing. The increase in the number of people who know about risks means they then can mitigate them. But if you’re sitting on a risk, then if it materializes and things go wrong, the impact is not only that you’ll take the hit, but it’s also a surprise to everyone—which is a lot worse.”

When the scandal at the VA erupted over misreported hospital patient wait times, the department “was actually standing up an [enterprise risk management] program that was in its infancy,” Grams said. Had VA been working with a robust ERM program for years, those problems might have been avoided or been dealt with much sooner, Grams said. “Some of the stuff we saw at VA was employee reluctance to raise the issue when they saw it happen,” he said, a phenomenon he labels “psychological safety.”

The same could apply at the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division, which was accused of political bias against conservatives after it mishandled nonprofits’ applications for social welfare status. When Grams arrived at IRS with acting commissioner Danny Werfel in May 2013, one of their first actions was to create an enterprise risk management program, he said. “We need to have the program in place because it’s a journey of years.”

OMB set the stage in June 2015 when it released circular A-11 on budget formulation, Grams said, which for the first time impressed upon agencies that they should be aware of enterprise risk management and view it as an emerging tool. “It put agencies on notice that ERM is a good way to do that. It’s definitely a way to force an organization to establish a formal framework it can consistently apply, so that risks get raised to the attention of senior leaders and management.”

Such an approach “can drive strategy, help with performance and drive budget decisions,” Grams said. “If you know the risks, then you can make decisions on how to accept, eliminate or manage them.” OMB also wants to “make sure agencies all define risk the same way across the organization.”

When the new Circular A-123 emerges, “agencies are going to need help implementing it because the vast majority don’t have the experience,” said Grams, who now takes five or six hours a week from his private-sector day job to lead the risk management association in offering agencies help.

Will the approach endure during the coming new administration? “OMB is positioning the federal government to talk more intelligently about risks,” Grams said. “So when the new president and a new team comes into office, if they’ve implemented [the revised] A-123, agencies can do an initial risk registries list,” a kind of prioritized inventory of things that could go wrong for each agency. “Think of how valuable that would be to new agency heads,” he said.

(Image via txking/

Source: GovExec

Government for the People: The Road to Customer-Centered Services @RPublicService

Government for the People

Government can change lives through great customer service. For example, millions of individuals attend college each year thanks to federal financial aid services, and many more rebuild their lives after natural disasters with government assistance. In order to change lives, agencies must put citizen needs at the center of everything they do. But how well are they accomplishing that goal?

The Partnership for Public Service, with support from Accenture Federal Services, identified the steps agencies can take to become more customer-centered, based on extensive interviews with agency leaders.

Download the report at

DHS – Progress in 2015 – Goals for 2016

DHS Progress

On Thursday, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Charles Johnson delivered his final State of Homeland Security address. The Secretary discussed the past, present, and future of the Department in his remarks, “DHS: Progress in 2015, Goals for 2016.”  This event was hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group.

Watch the Secretary’s address at