4 lessons in the use of dashboards

Columnist John Kamensky shares new insights into how dashboards can help agencies boost program performance.

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration.

When Vivek Kundra left his post as federal CIO, he left behind a legacy of initiatives. Perhaps his most visible success was the creation of the IT Dashboard, which he used to publicly track the performance of IT investments at federal agencies.

Kundra also brought the use of dashboards into the mainstream. Because of his pioneering efforts, dashboards are now used at agencies as diverse as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The recently passed GPRA Modernization Act will likely prompt an even broader use of dashboards because it requires regular agency-level reviews of program performance and results.

So what are dashboards, and how are they used?

A new report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, titled “Use of Dashboards in Government,” provides insight into the internal and external uses of dashboards to monitor performance and ensure accountability and transparency at large organizations. The author, Sukumar Ganapati, is an associate professor of public administration at Florida International University.

“Dashboards summarize key performance metrics of organizations,” Ganapati wrote. “They typically integrate data from different sources and display performance measures through informative graphics. The visualization allows readers to understand complex data in less time than it would take to read similar material buried in the text of a full report.”

The different types of dashboards are operational (for real-time monitoring, such as call centers or air traffic control), tactical (for analysis and benchmarking, such as welfare caseload processing) and strategic (such as balanced score cards of agency performance).

The report includes case studies of federal dashboards that demonstrate the variety of designs and measures that can be used. Specifically, Ganapati profiles the IT Dashboard, two financial transparency dashboards (USAspending.gov and Recovery.gov), and two agency-specific dashboards (FDA-TRACK and USPTO’s Data Visualization Center).

He shares four lessons from those and other government-created dashboards.

1. Data quality is essential to the credibility of dashboard performance measure.  Quality is being built into data through the use of “standardized data definitions and training of key agency personnel,” Ganapati wrote. He said adopting a standard schema, such as the Extensible Business Reporting Language for financial dashboards, “would enhance data quality and reporting efficiency.”

2. Best-practice resources are necessary in the design and use of dashboards. A website for standardizing dashboards or centralizing best practices, similar to Usability.gov, would be a valuable resource for agencies.

3. Performance measures should reflect organizational goals. And they should evolve in response to different audience needs.

4. Dashboards are only tools; their effectiveness depends on their use. Dashboards can be highly effective in helping agency leaders visualize and interpret performance data from multiple sources, but there must be a concerted effort to ensure that internal decision-makers take advantage of them. Furthermore, when used for external accountability purposes, as Recovery.gov is, “both the dashboard performance measures and the underlying data need to be publicly accessible” to ensure credibility, Ganapati wrote.

If your agency is considering more frequent reviews of program performance as a way of coping with budget pressures, then a dashboard might be a useful tool for collecting and sharing the real-time data needed. For example, the Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs uses a dashboard to track federal workers’ injury claims by agency. That approach has allowed the office to target trends and work with individual agencies to improve workplace safety and reduce the number of claims.

Applying dashboard tools at your agency could have similar results.