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APPAM President Paul Decker

Could Data Tsunami Usher in APPAM’s Moment?

November 13, 2013 03:12 PM

Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job in the 21st Century

by Nicole Fauteux

"I've been waiting a long time to see a headline like that," APPAM President Paul Decker told the crowd gathered Friday in Washington for his presidential address. The headline, taken from a Harvard Business Review article, was one of many moments of levity that punctuated Decker’s otherwise serious talk entitled False Choices, Policy Framing, and the Promise of "Big Data."

(View the slides from Decker's Presidential Address.)

Decker pointed out that 50 years ago, advances in computer technology that made sophisticated data computation and analysis possible stimulated the beginning of the policy analysis and management industry.

“I think big data and our capacity to mine and analyze it, has the potential to be another game changer for our field,” Decker asserted. While acknowledging that the use of data to drive public policy and management is still in its infancy, he believes the coming data tsunami could usher in what he called APPAM’s moment.

“The tools are continually evolving, but the underlying principles behind research are not,” he said. “Tricky research issues such as the distinction between causation and correlation and the appropriate methods to identify causation are not solved by the use of big data techniques. Our policy analysis and evaluation experts have been struggling with these issues for decades, and their expertise is critical to steering the translation of research and data into appropriate practice.”

The importance of this struggle was underlined in the first portion of Decker’s address, where he shared his perspective on what APPAM members should be doing to ensure that research and analysis reach their full potential in shaping public policy.  Stressing the strong connection between management and analysis, Decker argued that the framework in which policy analysis occurs must be altered in order to better inform policy decisions.

“Too often policy is driven by an assumed stark choice between maintaining a program or defunding it,” Decker explained. “This framing of program evaluation leads to a trench warfare between advocates who automatically reject research that’s not program affirming and program opponents who look at research findings as a way to shrink government. The end result is often unfortunately a stalemate in which the program is maintained despite evidence that it fails to achieve its stated objectives.”

Decker expressed the view that policies can be protected without perpetuating ineffectual programs, and he proposed a new framework for the translation of research to policy.

“Maintain an ongoing commitment of resources to the program targeted by the original legislation but continue to study the problem and search for programs that serve the population effectively,” Decker said. Such an approach, he argued, makes research an ally, not a threat.

Decker also spoke about what our association members can do to advance the use of evidence in public policy. “To take advantage of the current opportunities to play a bigger role in influencing public management, we at APPAM need to be wise and we need to be united, drawing on the strength of the diversity of our members.”

Decker urged APPAM members to embrace big data, continue to support and generate rigorous evidence, reframe the choices posited by research and connect the dots for others who see them less clearly.


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