Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why Government Data Sucks

WARNING: This post is inspired by my experience with municipal level government data and does not apply to macro indicators.

Now that everyone has been warned I can get into my semi-cathartic rant about micro-level government data.

Records are poorly kept, information systems in state and local governments are hopelessly behind the private sector, and little helpful data is available. Part of it is simply due to limited funds and a list of priorities that is extremely difficult to manage. Government agencies do not have the luxury of simply not serving an area where it is troublesome or expensive to operate. Also, nobody wants to put aside valuable funds for data collection and analysis.

Internal data quality is one beautiful thing about private industry and the profit motive because it is a necessity of competition. Firms must remain vigilant in examining their operations to monitor profitable and forecast future financial needs. In government, it is easy to ignore a program's effectiveness once it has been legislated and examining program effectiveness can be politically unpopular. Fiscal conservatives might consider spending on program evaluation wasteful and many politicians might choose willful ignorance. Program evaluation may very well make some easy and popular talking points obsolete.

By no means are all state and municipal governments the same when it comes to data tracking but it is clearly a weakness from most areas. It takes a conscientious effort and extension of resource that is easy to avoid in the absence of the profit motive.

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