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Don't let your data keep secrets

Keys to analytics success in human services.

Overview

Human services practitioners once had to rely mostly on experience and instinct to make critical decisions. Yet the volume and quality of data today has changed decision making by providing a tool to help manage programs. With advanced analytics, organizations can unlock data insights to guide policy, improve services and drive human services outcomes.

Extracting future-focused insights from data can help human services organizations make the most of data to improve performance. Today’s resource-strapped, high-demand climate is an ideal time for organizations to explore such advanced data analysis.

Background

A recent Accenture survey of government decision makers in six countries revealed that nearly half of respondents had a need for a greater understanding of analytics.1 These findings reflect the buzz around analytics in human services, which can be described as a mix of interest tempered by uncertainty.

One cause for confusion is that analytics means different things to different people. Most human services practitioners currently using analytics employ descriptive analytics to reveal “what happened” by deriving insights from patterns and relationships in the data. Predictive analytics, which is used less commonly, refers to more advanced statistical methods that use data insights to understand “what is likely to happen.”2

1 Source: Government Analytics: What Governments Stand to Gain (or Lose), Accenture
2 Source: Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning (Davenport/Harris)

Analysis

While there are clear challenges to building analytics-infused organizations, agencies can begin by understanding several keys to success:

  1. It’s not just where you’ve been—it’s where you need to go.
    With more advanced statistical analysis, forecasting and predictive modeling techniques, agencies can continue to identify what has already happened, while focusing more on what they would like to happen in the future. Leaders get a bigger, proactive view to improve the business in line with their mission and business goals.

  2. It’s about more than just compliance—it’s about improving outcomes.
    Human services agencies are using analytics to help improve compliance by addressing waste, fraud and abuse.

With more sophisticated analysis, agencies can take data insight further—using it to target resources and program and policy design to improve outcomes.

  1. It’s about having the data insight—and integrating it with the business.
    Analytic insight in isolation is interesting, but embedded insight in decision making and case management provides immense value, allowing the focus to remain on what is most important, program integrity. Despite technology advances, business integration is essential to success.

  2. It’s about managing expectations—analytics is only part of the picture.
    As much value as analytics can provide to the human services community, it is not a panacea. Data insight must be understood in line with the broader context, and limitations must be acknowledged. The key is to take a measured approach and continually manage expectations among staff and leadership about how—and the extent to which—data insight can and should shape operations.

Recommendations

Exploring more advanced analytics techniques is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Organizations can work in pockets to use data insight to know more and guess less for solutions that challenge their assumptions, and as one Human Services Summit attendee says: “come up with real solutions that we can implement in real time that will make a difference for most people most of the time.”