Originally published September 16, 2008
Dashboards have become all the rage in business intelligence over the last few years. Yet there has not been much focus on dashboards in government and the role that they can and should play in guiding managers in the public sector.
A dashboard is intended to provide a quick review mechanism for the busy and preoccupied manager who has to gauge multiple variables almost simultaneously in order to check the status of his or her operating environment. The term is borrowed, obviously, from the control panel that we see in airplanes or automobiles. In one fell swoop, we obtain a general overview of our airplane’s situation. What is the aircraft’s speed? How high is it flying? What is the level of fuel in the tanks? What is its heading? Where is it exactly in terms of latitude and longitude? What is the wind speed and its direction outside the plane? How much time is left until the plane arrives at its destination?
Furthermore, with the aid of colors, blinking lights or audio prompts, we can also be effectively notified when we reach, or pass, important thresholds. These alerts can trigger our attention and initiate possible actions required by the situation.
With the arrival of balanced scorecards as a management mechanism, the need to display the metrics selected for each scorecard became an important issue. Multiple designs, and the software to produce these designs, became hot items in the business world. But in most cases, the problem was not so much the dashboard design but being able to obtain the underlying data automatically, accurately and in a timely mode in order to populate the dashboard and allow drilling down into the data in a manner that allowed for effective use of the tool. This was particularly challenging in the public sector since much of the data needed sat in legacy databases with noninteroperable systems and multiple formats. In addition, the importance of being able to access some of the documents that define the policy environment is absolutely critical in a government setting.
We are now starting to see real progress being made in dashboards at several federal agencies. While occasionally it still seems to be more in the aesthetics of display than in the usefulness of the information, there are a few situations where agency leadership seems to be actually excited about the results. One example of such excitement is at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) where recently adopted dashboards by one of its agencies – the Cooperative of State Research Education and Extension Services (CSREES) – have generated significant enthusiasm.
CSREES has, as its primary mission, “the responsibility for providing linkages between federal and state components of a broad-based national agricultural higher education, research and extension system designed to address national problems and needs related to agriculture, the environment, human health and well being, and communities.”
In 2006, CSREES national program leaders (NPLs) and program assistants had requested that IT build a customized, central application where they could quickly review the project status of grants awarded to the research, education and extension communities. Before this date, NPLs had to refer to several disparate reporting databases and then manually compile results in spreadsheets – many of which contained errors. More importantly, these spreadsheets didn’t provide the specific, tailored information the NPLs needed to manage their specific programs.
To address these reporting deficiencies, the LMD project team met with an NPL super user group to conduct requirements-gathering sessions. They entered the requirements (e.g., presenting program-funding summaries that “drilled down” to detailed project reports) into a database and rated them according to their level of importance.
The LMD development team then applied rapid prototyping methods – through an Oracle portal environment – to demonstrate quickly to the NPL super user group the look and feel of their customized dashboard. After each demo (scheduled three weeks apart), the development team took user comments and refined the technical aspects of the dashboard. The CSREES NPL community (about 120 staff) was introduced to the first production release of the Leadership Management Dashboard (LMD) at the end of July 2007. Since then, the LMD has been a success because the project team has constantly met with super users (in a rapid prototyping environment) to provide them new “looks and feels” of their data.
While use of the dashboard at CSREES is fairly new, some interesting trends are emerging. Some NPLs have hundreds of grant awards to manage. This new tool allows NPLs to better manage their workload, which enables them to conduct more post-award management activities. The increase in post-award activities should, in time, lead to better accountability over grant funding.
As a follow-up to this internal dashboard success, the external scientific agricultural community has requested that CSREES provide them a mechanism to view agricultural reports – which they are required to provide to CSREES. To meet this major requirement, the LMD project team will release a customized version of the dashboard in September to the external research, education and extension community.