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States can get employees successfully working with data by making the training process more approachable, data experts said.
Start talking about statistics or data literacy to many government workers, and they will be scared and intimidated, said Nick Hart, president and CEO of the Data Foundation think tank.
But states that are successful in educating their employees about data do so by framing it as data “proficiency” rather than “literacy.” That helps break down some of the barriers that may dissuade workers from learning more, he said during a panel discussion at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ Mid-Year Meeting in National Harbor, Maryland.
Indiana is one state that has embraced free education to help its employees to improve their data literacy, and its approach is paying off, according to the state’s Chief Data Officer Josh Martin. Around 1,800 state employees have participated in at least one of the state’s training programs, which initially were advertised by Indiana’s central human resources department through its monthly newsletters.
During the panel discussion, Martin said the courses, which have been curated from content already available online, feature video introductions to various data management concepts, with supplemental reading available. He said the state found the “most approachable content that we could.” After an employee completes five lessons, they take a quiz and can earn state-issued badges to show their proficiency level.
From the top of the organization on down, Martin said an understanding of data is vital for employees.
“We need to have good documents, we need to have a literate, proficient workforce,” he said. “You need to have people that understand how to read, write and argue data.”
Initially, Martin said the most popular area for employees looking to analyze data was the state’s transparency portal, as it includes information about individuals’ salaries, bonuses and other compensation. But the portal has since become a good training tool, as staff use it to check their specific departments for contract awards or other data that could be helpful to their jobs.
Other tech leaders both inside and outside the state have already looked to use Indiana’s playbook. Martin said Pennsylvania officials have approached him about replicating his initiative for their state employees, and there is also interest in having local government workers take at least some of these training sessions.
Across the public sector, Hart said that if governments are to help their employees become more proficient in their use of data, they must focus on “taking down the intimidation and making this a participatory process.” Too often, people “put up walls” when faced with statistics or other data, he said.
That reluctance to embrace data caused problems during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hart said. The nation needed to “rapidly build assets that can be used and are translatable for governors or the American public,” he said, but too often it was philanthropic organizations that stepped in to build out those datasets and dashboards.
In a report last year, the Data Foundation said agencies can take steps to improve their employees’ data proficiency, including talking about data in a common, shared language that is relatable for everyone and ensuring that the push to better data governance aligns with improved data literacy. The report also urged governments to encourage the use of data in decision-making.
Senior state officials, whether they be elected leaders like the governor or appointees like the chief information officer or chief data officer, must push their employees toward data proficiency, and governments should allocate more resources, the report said. Martin described those people as “data champions,” and said they are crucial to any program’s success.
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