Missing the Mark on Moneyball

Last week, a panel of elite government officials in association with America Achieves hosted a conversation discussing how the federal government needs to start playing Moneyball. In this underdog baseball film starring Brad Pitt, statistics are used to pick a winning team. The emphasis of this panel was the need for government to start using data smarter, more often and more rigorously.

5 main takeaways from panel:
1. Not a partisan issue.
2. Given ever strained resources and a continually unsatisfied citizenry we have to learn to do more with less. Data allows us to make the best decisions
3. Rigorous evaluations are not done enough.
4. Without data from these evaluations we cannot accurately decide where funds should be appropriated and so interest groups win instead of what is in the best interest.
5. Having an evaluation plan allows programs to use intermediate outcomes to make shifts mid-course.
6. The public sector could learn a thing or two from entrepreneurs – like learning from failures and allowing programs to be corrected not cancelled.

Each observation is entirely accurate. There is a greater need for evaluation and smarter use of data. Equally important is the need for a shift in culture which allows room for some amount of failure, allowing faltering programs to correct course, not close the doors
Despite all the valuable knowledge imparted during this session, it still fell short of delivering on the subject matter it promised. The panel chose to identify what it considered three important components of Moneyball: Data, Strategy, and Measureable Outcomes. While these are key aspects and benefits demonstrated in the film; it falls short of the true Moneyball potential. The whole point of the Moneyball movement is to use data from the beginning of a program. Data is intended to determine where resources are distributed – who makes it on the team, and what will they be doing.

The substance of today’s conversation was entirely retroactive. Panelists focused on how to build data after the fact to change the program. While this is an important step for the federal government, it is not Moneyball. However, is this really a failure of the panel? I’m inclined to say no. Instead it highlights a challenge; you have walk before you can run. The government has been collecting data since its inception. Right now the government is just figuring out how to measure its programs and regularly collect the right data. It may be a considerable amount of time before many agencies or programs are capable of accurately selecting program success factors and then determining the importance of each factor.
For a more in depth discussion of Moneyball in the federal government see our upcoming report, Third Dimension of Data in Public Sector: Using Predictive Analytics to Improve Government.

By: Amanda Seifert

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