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October 30, 2023

Connecting Government Agencies with Strategies and Tools for Sustainable Data Use

By Siri Warkentien and Nicole Deterding

Many federal agencies are striving to increase their capacity to collect and use data in line with the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act of 2018. State agencies are no different.

State directors of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program expressed similar goals of better leveraging their administrative data to improve their programs and inform policy decisions in August at the 2023 National TANF Directors’ Meeting, hosted by the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Family Assistance. The state directors also highlighted many accompanying challenges. Some states had difficulties in hiring for new data analytics roles or training existing staff. Other states had challenges in finding the right audiences and communicating their data analysis results. The discussions made clear that state agency leaders saw the potential benefits of sustained data use and wanted to move their agencies in that direction, but that they faced significant obstacles in shifting from one-off data projects to data use as a routine part of their operations.

A recent publication, Strengthening Analytics in Government Agencies: A Toolkit for Sustainable Data Use, provides precisely the kind of highly relevant and practical guidance necessary to address these types of challenges. The toolkit was developed to crystalize lessons learned as data teams in eight states worked to strengthen their use of TANF, employment, and other administrative data as part of ACF’s TANF Data Innovation (TDI) project.  TDI was funded by ACF and conducted in partnership with contractors MDRC, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Coleridge Initiative.

The purpose of the toolkit is to help public sector leaders build the culture and infrastructure to conduct data analysis routinely and effectively, something the toolkit refers to as “sustainable data use.” The toolkit argues that the key to sustainable data use is the presence of two conditions: demand from decision-makers interested in making data-informed decisions and organizational capacity to conduct data analyses. Both must be present for data use to be sustainable. Once established, they tend to reinforce each other and can increase the likelihood that data informs policy and practice.

How does the toolkit help? The toolkit first summarizes the conditions—demand and capacity—necessary for sustainable data use. It then offers a scorable self-assessment for leaders to consider their agency’s current practices and capacity. The next six sections of the toolkit provide specific and actionable strategies to:

Through five fillable tools, eight spotlights on successful agency efforts, and countless links to highly relevant resources, readers get concrete guidance on how to move their agency toward sustainable data use. For example, agencies needing help building internal staff capacity can find sample language for creating job descriptions for data analytics staff in Tool 2; Tool 3 provides sample interview questions for hiring data analytics staff.

Although many examples highlight TANF agencies work through ACF’s TANF Data Collaborative, the strategies and tools provided are relevant across a wide range of agencies at all levels of government.

As such, Strengthening Analytics in Government Agencies: A Toolkit for Sustainable Data Use is a treasure trove to be widely shared with anyone interested in increasing sustainable data use.


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