Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Local governments don’t need more data—they need people who can process what they already have.
For most of history, leaders have made decisions based more on instinct than actual evidence. The best leaders would learn from their mistakes and approach the next decision with previous experience in mind. In other words, decision-making was based on trial and error.
But in the 21st century, with technology and data all around us, we can do better. Take a look at the private sector, and you’ll notice that the most successful companies in the world are the ones that have figured out how to make data-driven decisions.
Everyone is collecting data, but the unfortunate reality is that most organizations are drowning in it. Between 2013 and 2020, it’s estimated that the total amount of existing data increased by a factor of 10. What makes data valuable is when it’s digested, analyzed and turned into actionable information. You need people with the necessary skills to do that, and the competition to hire those people is very intense right now. With greater abilities to offer more attractive salaries, companies in the private sector are scooping up talent, as local governments struggle to find it.
The Salary Squeeze
The shortage of data specialists has led to a salary arms race. The average Twitter employee makes $161,860 per year, while Facebook offers approximately $240,000. Meanwhile, the same jobs in the federal government pay $110,000 annually, and even that is likely a princely sum compared to what most local governments can offer.
To make matters worse, silos abound across city and local government. It will take skilled data scientists and technologists to create and maintain solutions that merge these disparate data sources, digest the information within them and produce insights that inform public officials’ decisions. It’s a tall order, but the payoffs can be enormous.
For example, when the first wave of Covid-19 hit Philadelphia, the city mobilized data and technology teams and partners such as the University of Pennsylvania and Mastercard to conduct contact tracing, monitor economic trends and view hospitalization numbers and the availability of life-saving ventilators.
All these initiatives required one common denominator—talent. Without a group of specialized individuals in the trenches, these kinds of game-changing measures would have been impossible to pull off. The moral of the story is that tech talent can open doors, especially when it comes to data. To bring some of that talent to your own endeavors, local government should embrace these three steps:
1. Invest in tech talent.
Tech talent is expensive, but a few key hires can amplify your entire workforce by empowering them with the right information and tools. It’s not easy to swallow such a major upfront cost, but remember, the downstream payoffs will be much higher.
You can also look for nontraditional candidates who might come with lower price tags that are within your organization’s budget. When IBM needed to fill certain tech roles, it created a 12- to 18-month apprenticeship program that gave participants 200 to 300 hours of hands-on instruction. The program is a valuable blueprint for government organizations looking to fill vacancies, and attendees who don’t get hired will still graduate from the program with valuable experience that can broaden their career horizons.
2. Invest in employees.
Data science isn’t rocket science; everyone can use data to make better decisions, including your current employees. Look at high performers on your existing team who demonstrate some of the qualities necessary for a successful transition to tech, including an appetite for self-directed learning, project management skills and time-management abilities that will help them tie up loose ends in their previous role while migrating to the a one.
Reskilling is particularly important in government because government employees tend to stay with their department for longer. That means up-skilling efforts will reap dividends for longer, and employees will transition into tech or data-focused roles informed by deep knowledge of the work they’ve performed in other capacities.
3. Invest in your citizens.
With tech talent in short supply worldwide, one of the best ways you can invest in your local community (and reap some of the returns) is by contributing to training programs for your citizens. These programs benefit individuals and the entire community by providing local government and private sector companies with the skill sets they need to succeed.
The time and resources that are necessary to acquire a traditional tech degree put this important credential out of reach for many people. Fortunately, programs have emerged to rapidly train individuals at a fraction of the cost. By supporting these initiatives, partnering with them and hiring their graduates, local governments can help establish themselves as burgeoning regional tech hubs.
With the incredible proliferation of internet-connected devices, data collection is the easy part. Turning data into insights is hard work, and it’s even harder on a limited talent budget that can’t match that of the private sector. That’s why local governments need to take a different approach and acquire data scientists however they can. In doing so, they can create regional hubs that add to the momentum and transform both companies and communities for the better.
Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals.