Working Groups and COVID-19 Recovery
October 22, 2020 by
The response, recovery, and ultimate renewal from the COVID-19 crisis represents perhaps the most significant public policy challenge facing governments in a generation.
Data leaders play a critical role in how their communities can effectively and equitably respond to the public health emergency and recover from the economic implications of the crisis. While data has supported recovery in recent natural disasters, the scale and complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic leaves government data leaders to write the playbook as they go. Best practices are emerging in real time as the crisis and recovery unfold.
These leaders don’t have to go at it alone.
Peer Communities of Practice
Virtual working groups of government practitioners provide not just opportunities for peer learning but for the rapid scaling of best practices. Data-focused communities of practice prior to the COVID-19 pandemic helped peers develop successful methodology around performance management or establish resources to obtain elected and staff buy-in for programs.
Peer working groups such as the Tyler Technologies COVID-19 group involve state and local chief data officers, chief technology officers, and performance management leaders. These individuals meet monthly in member-led sessions to exchange ideas and approaches to leveraging data to address pandemic-related challenges. Rather than interest waning, the attendance of the Tyler peer working group has increased since its inception in May. The same is likely true in other groups.
The substance of these groups rests in the scalability of demonstrated solutions. When an idea that works in one jurisdiction can be quickly stood up in another with minimal effort, it is a validating proof point for government practitioners.
“When done appropriately, communities of practice allow for one person to have a really good idea that impacts and helps others,” said Oliver Wise, director of recovery solutions and founding director of the city of New Orleans Office of Performance and Accountability. “One jurisdiction might have a slightly different situation but can take another’s technical success and apply to different but analogous data sets without having to reinvent the wheel.”
Jurisdictions Share CARES Act Fund Tracking
In a recent Tyler COVID-19 peer group meeting, leaders from the State of Iowa and Ramsey County, Minnesota, shared just how well connections and synergies can work. In Iowa, State Data Administrator Scott Vander Hart used his open data platform to track and report out on his jurisdiction’s CARES Act funds. The Iowa Pandemic Recovery page allows anyone to explore details around the receipt and expenditure of relief dollars. The enhanced transparency also serves as a measure of accountability in showing the public exactly where federal funds have gone and how they have been used.
“My agency started getting questions about as fast as we were being awarded new money as to how it was being used,” said Vander Hart. He used the state’s existing open finance, budget, and expenditure applications to stand up a solution quickly. The site shows the public as well as elected officials what the state has received from the federal government and how it has been expended with data that is updated every Monday. While ensuring transparency, the site also helps the state report to the U.S. Treasury on relief fund use.
Instead of just demonstrating the final product, Vander Hart showed the group exactly how he went about creating it to help others facing the same tracking and reporting challenges. Specifically, he noted that creating a standardized way of accounting for the funding in the accounting system was critical to easily extracting the information. Vander Hart demonstrated a reporting guide that defined data, outlined accounting codes, and explained reporting and dataset update processes to all departments.
Kristine Grill, open data portal coordinator for Ramsey County, Minnesota, scaled Iowa’s pioneering work with relative ease. “Scott really paved the way for us,” she noted. “While we had the expenditures data waiting in the wings, I went to Scott’s open expenditures page and looked at the format – the schema and structure – of the datasets published and we took the formatting and used that as the jumping off point for conversations with our departments.”
Because Ramsey County also had an existing open expenditure portal to leverage, being iterative with expenditures data was a quick process using standardized account codes. Grill created a filtered view based on account code and program name in a matter of minutes for an accurate reporting of the county’s COVID-19 spend.
While Grill scaled the schema and structure of the datasets from Iowa’s dashboard, she also drew style inspiration from similar tracking dashboards in Pierce County, Washington. The resulting dashboard provides a summary of the revenues, expenditures, and contracts related to COVID-19. Information includes state and federal funds received, as well as sections answering, “How much have we spent?” “What did we spend it on?” and “Who spent it?” Other dashboards show money spent on staffing in response to COVID-19, including department and type of pay.
Ingredients of Scalability
For working groups to have value for all members, the key ingredients of scalability must be present:
- An organized forum to facilitate quick exchange of ideas
- The existence of similar/shared challenges or goals
- Clear documentation on data standards
- Freely accessible data in an open data platform
In the example above, the COVID-19 working group and peer examples enabled meaningful sharing around a common challenge. With Ramsey County’s finance data already liquid and easily accessible in an open finance platform, the data needed only a small tweak to meet the standards and be reused in another way.
Working groups embody the concept of one good idea rippling through a pond. “In the midst of the most disconnected part of our lives, people have found a way to ensure that partnerships, collaboration, and the joy of others still seep into their days,” said Justin Bruce, Tyler’s COVID-19 Working Group co-chair and the first director of Innovation and Performance for the city of Jackson, Mississippi. “They come to working groups to learn from what others have done but also to interact with folks who, like themselves, are passionate about the work they do every day.”