Category Archives: Public Management

LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog: What does Big Data mean to public affairs research? Understanding the methodological and analytical challenges

The following text was originally prepared for LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences Blog and reposted here.

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The term ‘Big Data’ is often misunderstood or poorly defined, especially in the public sector. Ines Mergel, R. Karl Rethemeyer, and Kimberley R. Isett provide a definition that adequately encompasses the scale, collection processes, and sources of Big Data. However, while recognising its immense potential it is also important to consider the limitations when using Big Data as a policymaking tool. Using this data for purposes not previously envisioned can be problematic, researchers may encounter ethical issues, and certain demographics are often not captured or represented.

In the public sector, the term ‘Big Data’ is often misused, misunderstood, and poorly defined. Public sector practitioners and researchers frequently use the term to refer to large data sets that were administratively collected by a government agency. Though these data sets are usually quite large and can be used for predictive analytics, administrative data does not include the oceans of information that is created by private citizens through their interactions with each other online (such as social media or business transaction data) or through sensors in buildings, cars, and streets. Moreover, when public sector researchers and practitioners do consider broader definitions of Big Data they often overlook key political, ethical, and methodological complexities that may bias the insights gleaned from ‘going Big’. In our recent paper we seek to provide a clearer definition that is current and conversant with how other fields define Big Data, before turning to fundamental issues that public sector practitioners and researchers must keep in mind when using Big Data.

Defining Big Data for the public sector

Public affairs research and practice has long profited from dialogue with allied disciplines like management and political science and has more recently incorporated insights from computational and information science. Drawing on all of these fields we define Big Data as:

“High volume data that frequently combines highly structured administrative data actively collected by public sector organizations with continuously and automatically collected structured and unstructured real-time data that are often passively created by public and private entities through their internet.”

This definition encompasses the scale of newly emerging data sets (many observations with many variables) while also addressing data collection processes (continuous and automatic), the form of the data collected (structured and unstructured), and the sources of such data (public and private). The definition also suggests the ‘granularity’ of the data (more variables describing more discrete characteristics of persons, places, events, interactions, and so forth), and the lag between collection and readiness for analysis (ever shorter).

Methodological and analytical challenges

Defined thus Big Data promises access to vast amounts of real-time information from public and private sources that should allow insights into behavioral preferences, policy options, and methods for public service improvement. In the private sector, marketing preferences can be aligned with customer insights gleaned from Big Data. In the public sector however, government agencies are less responsive and agile in their real-time interactions by design – instead using time for deliberation to respond to broader public goods. The responsiveness Big Data promises is a virtue in the private sector but could be a vice in the public.

Moreover, we raise several important concerns with respect to relying on Big Data as a decision and policymaking tool. While in the abstract Big Data is comprehensive and complete, in practice today’s version of Big Data has several features that should give public sector practitioners and scholars pause. First, most of what we think of as Big Data is really ‘digital exhaust’ – that is, data collected for purposes other than public sector operations or research. Data sets that might be publicly available from social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter were designed for purely technical reasons. The degree to which this data lines up conceptually and operationally with public sector questions is purely coincidental. Use of digital exhaust for purposes not previously envisioned can go awry. A good example is Google’s attempt to predict the flu based on search terms.

Second, we believe there are ethical issues that may arise when researchers use data that was created as a byproduct of citizens’ interactions with each other or with a government social media account. Citizens are not able to understand or control how their data is used and have not given consent for storage and re-use of their data. We believe that research institutions need to examine their institutional review board processes to help researchers and their subjects understand important privacy issues that may arise. Too often it is possible to infer individual-level insights about private citizens from a combination of data points and thus predict their behaviors or choices.

Lastly, Big Data can only represent those that spend some part of their life online. Yet we know that certain segments of society opt in to life online (by using social media or network-connected devices), opt out (either knowingly or passively), or lack the resources to participate at all. The demography of the internet matters. For instance, researchers tend to use Twitter data because its API allows data collection for research purposes, but many forget that Twitter users are not representative of the overall population. Instead, as a recent Pew Social Media 2016 update shows, only 24% of all online adults use Twitter. Internet participation generally is biased in terms of age, educational attainment, and income – all of which correlate with gender, race, and ethnicity. We believe therefore that predictive insights are potentially biased toward certain parts of the population, making generalisations highly problematic at this time.

In summary, we see the immense potential of Big Data use in the public sector, but we also believe that it is context-specific and must be meaningfully combined with administratively collected data and purpose-built ‘small data’ to have value in improving public programmes. Increasingly, public managers must know how to collect, manage, and analyse Big Data, but they must also be fully conversant with the limitations and potential for misuse.

This blog post is based on the authors’ article, ‘Big Data in Public Affairs’, published in Public Administration Review (DOI: 10.1111/puar.12625).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

mergelInes Mergel is full professor of public administration at the University of Konstanz’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. Mergel focuses her research and teaching activities on topics such as digital transformation and adoption of new technologies in the public sector. Her ORCID id is 0000-0003-0285-4758 and she may be contacted at ines.mergel@uni-konstanz.de.

rethemeyerKarl Rethemeyer is Interim Dean of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York. Rethemeyer’s primary research interest is in social networks and their impact on political and policy processes. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-5673-8026 and he may be contacted at kretheme@albany.edu.

isett_portraitKimberley R. Isett is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Georgia institute of Technology. Her research is centred on the organisation and financing of government services, particularly in health.  Her ORCID id is 0000-0002-7584-0181 and she may be contacted at isett@gatech.edu.

New paper: #BigData in Public Affairs published in PAR

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-8-03-17-amKarl Rethemeyer, Kim Isett, and I just published a new paper in Public Administration Review with the title “Big Data in Public Affairs“.

Our goal for this article is to define what big data means for our discipline and raising interesting research questions that have not been explored yet. Here is the abstract of our article. Please email me if you can’t access the full paper:

This article offers an overview of the conceptual, substantive, and practical issues surrounding “big data” to provide one perspective on how the field of public affairs can successfully cope with the big data revolution. Big data in public affairs refers to a combination of administrative data collected through traditional means and large-scale data sets created by sensors, computer networks, or individuals as they use the Internet. In public affairs, new opportunities for real-time insights into behavioral patterns are emerging but are bound by safeguards limiting government reach through the restriction of the collection and analysis of these data. To address both the opportunities and challenges of this emerging phenomenon, the authors first review the evolving canon of big data articles across related fields. Second, they derive a working definition of big data in public affairs. Third, they review the methodological and analytic challenges of using big data in public affairs scholarship and practice. The article concludes with implications for public affairs.

Reference:

Mergel, I., Rethemeyer, R. K., Isett, K. (forthcoming): Big Data in Public Affairs, in: Public Administration Review, DOI: 10.1111/puar.12625.

Award: Research stipend from IBM’s The Center for the Business of Government

 

IBM – The Center for the Business of Government has announced a new round of winners of their research stipends. I won an award to write about my research on digital service transformation in the U.S. federal government.

Here is the announcement text:

The Center for The Business of Government continues to support research by recognized thought leaders on key public management issues facing government executives today.

The Center for The Business of Government continues to support reports by leading thinkers on key issues affecting government today.  We are pleased to announce our latest round of awards for new reports on key public sector challenges, which respond to priorities identified in the Center’s research agenda. Our content is intended to stimulate and accelerate the production of practical research that benefits public sector leaders and managers.

My report will focus on the following topic: “Implementing Digital Services Teams Across the U.S. Federal Government”

In 2014, the White House created the U.S. Digital Service team and the General Services Administration’s 18F group. Both groups are using agile software development processes to design and implement high-profile software projects. The results of this report include lessons learned during the scaling up efforts of digital service teams across the departments of the U.S. federal government. These will focus on managerial design aspects, organizational challenges, motivations of digital swat teams and their department-level counterparts, as well as first outcomes in the form of digital service transformations in each department. This research report aims to support the presidential transition team’s efforts by outlining the current efforts of scaling-up digital service teams and their lessons learned, as well as observable outcomes of digital service teams across the U.S. federal government.

New IBM Report: A Manager’s Guide to Assessing the Impact of Government Social Media Interactions

IBM’s Center for the Business of Government has published a new report: “A Manager’s Guide to Assessing the Impact of Government Social Media Interactions“.IBM Center for the Business of Government: A Manager’s Guide to Assessing the Impact of Government Social Media Interactions

This new report addresses the key question of how government should measure the impact of its social media use.

Social media data – as part of the big data landscape – has important signaling function for government organizations. Public managers can quickly assess what citizens think about draft policies, understand the impact they will have on citizens or actively pull citizens ideas into the government innovation process. However, big data collection and analysis are for many government organizations still a barrier and it is important to understand how to make sense of the massive amount of data that is produced on social media every day.

This report guides public managers step-by-step through the process of slicing and dicing big data into small data sets that provide important mission-relevant insights to public managers.

First, I offer a survey of the social media measurement landscape showing what free tools are used and the type of insights they can quickly provide through constant monitoring and for reporting purposes. Then I review the White House’s digital services measurement framework which is part of the overall Digital Government Strategy. Next, I discuss the design steps for a social media strategy which will be basis for all social media efforts and should include the mission and goals which can then be operationalized and measured. Finally, I provide insights how the social media metrics can be aligned with the social media strategic goals and how these numbers and other qualitative insights can be reported to make a business case for the impact of social media interactions in government.

I interviewed social media managers in the federal government, observed their online discussions about social media metrics, and reviewed GSA’s best practices recommendations and practitioner videos to understand what the current measurement practices are. Based on these insights, I put together a comprehensive report that guides managers through the process of setting up a mission-driven social media strategy and policy as the basis for all future measurement activities, and provided insights on how they can build a business with insights derived from both quantitative and qualitative social media data.

 

Media coverage:

 

Public Administration Review article: A Three-Stage Adoption Process for Social Media Use in Government

Together with my co-author Professor Stuart Bretschneider I wrote an article that was just published for early view in the Public Administration Review (PAR). In this article, we develop a model of social adoption in the public sector. Here is the abstract:

Social media applications are slowly diffusing across all levels of government. The organizational dynamics underlying adoption and use decisions follow a process similar to that for previous waves of new information and communication technologies. The authors suggest that the organizational diffusion of these types of new information and communication technologies, initially aimed at individual use and available through markets, including social media applications, follows a three-stage process. First, agencies experiment informally with social media outside of accepted technology use policies. Next, order evolves from the first chaotic stage as government organizations recognize the need to draft norms and regulations. Finally, organizational institutions evolve that clearly outline appropriate behavior, types of interactions, and new modes of communication that subsequently are formalized in social media strategies and policies. For each of the stages, the authors provide examples and a set of propositions to guide future research.

Full reference:

Mergel, I. and Bretschneider, S. I. (2013), A Three-Stage Adoption Process for Social Media Use in Government. Public Administration Review. doi: 10.1111/puar.12021

Our paper won the Emerald Group’s Citations of Excellence winner 2016 award!

New article: Networks in Public Administration in PMR

CoverSheet PMR articleMy co-authors Jesse Lecy (GSU), Hans Peter Schmitz (SU) and I have published an article in Public Management Review:

Lecy, J., Mergel, I., Schmitz, H. P. (2013): Networks in Public Administration, published online DOI:10.1080/14719037.2012.743577, in: Public Management Review. [Link to pre-publication version on SSRN]

Here is the abstract:

Network-focused research in public administration has expanded rapidly over the past two decades. This rapid growth has created come confusion about terminology and approaches to research in the field. We organize the network literature in public administration using compact citation networks to identify coherent subdomains focused on (1) policy formation, (2) governance and (3) policy implementation. We trace how these domains differ in their approach to defining the role of networks, relationships and actors and to what extent the articles apply formal network analysis techniques. Based on a subsequent content analysis of the sample articles, we identify promising research avenues focused on the wider adoption of methods derived from social network analysis and the conditions under which networks actually deliver improved results.

Please email me in case you want to read the article!

New article “The social media innovation challenge in the public sector”, in: Information Polity

Albert Meijer, Frank Bannister and Marcel Thaens edited a special issue of “Information Polity” with the topic “ICT, Public Administration and Democracy in the Coming Decade”. They put together a tremendous group of international e-Government researchers and today the special issue was posted online. The articles included in the special issue include:

  1. ICT, Public Administration and Democracy in the Coming Decade, by Albert MeijerFrank Bannister and Marcel Thaens
  2. Forward to the past: Lessons for the future of e-government from the story so far, by Frank Bannister and Regina Connolly
  3. The Information Polity: Towards a two speed future? by John A. Taylor
  4. E-Government is dead: Long live Public Administration 2.0 by Miriam Lips
  5. Surveillance as X-ray by C. William R. Webster
  6. Towards a smart State? Inter-agency collaboration, information integration, and beyond by J. Ramon Gil-Garcia
  7. The social media innovation challenge in the public sector by Ines Mergel
  8. A good man but a bad wizard. About the limits and future of transparency of democratic governments by Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen
  9. The Do It Yourself State by Albert J. Meijer
  10. Five trends that matter: Challenges to 21st century electronic government by Hans Jochen Scholl
  11. Why does e-government looks as it does? looking beyond the explanatory emptiness of the e-government concept by Victor Bekkers
  12. Big questions of e-government research by Mete Yıldız

My own article focuses on the innovation challenges government agencies are facing when they are implementing social media:

Abstract: The use of social media applications has been widely accepted in the U.S. government. Many of the social media strategies and day-to-day tactics have also been adopted around the world as part of local Open Government Initiatives and the worldwide Open Government Partnership. Nevertheless, the acceptance and broader adoption of sophisticated tactics that go beyond information and education paradigm such as true engagement or networking strategies are still in its infancy. Rapid diffusion is challenged by informal bottom-up experimentation that meets institutional and organizational challenges hindering innovative tactics. Going forward governments and bureaucratic organizations are also facing the challenge to show the impact of their social media interactions. Each of these challenges is discussed in this article and extraordinary examples, that are not widely adopted yet, are provided to show how government organizations can potentially overcome these challenges.

Full reference: 

Mergel, I. (2012): The social media innovation challenge in the public sector, in: Information Polity,  Vol. 17, No. 3-4, pp. 281–292, DOI 10.3233/IP-2012-000281

Feel free to email me (ines_mergel (at) yahoo dot com) in case you can’t access a digital copy through your library!

New book published: “Social Media in the Public Sector”

I am excited to announce the release of my first sole-authored book: “Social media in the public sector“. It will be officially introduced to the public at the annual NASPAA conference in Austin, TX, on October 18, 2012.

The book is based on my research that started about three years ago. My initial interest started with the success of  Obama’s Internet strategy to reach audiences via social media who are unlikely to interact with politicians or government in general. As the open government initiative developed in the U.S. federal government, I started to interview public managers to understand how they are (re)organizing their standard operating procedures to use social media for regular governing operations in support of the mission of their organizations. The book provides insights into the strategic, managerial, and administrative aspects of social media adoption in the public sector.

The publisher’s book page includes resources for professors who would like to use the book in their e-government classes, including week-by-week Powerpoint slides and an article published in the Journal of Public Affairs Education that outlines my teaching approach and learning experiences.

The book went through a thorough double-blind peer-review process and I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback.

Next month an accompanying field guide will be released.

Here is a link to the instructor resources on Jossey-Bass/Wiley’s website.

Blurb:

In today’s networked world, the public sector is tapping into new media applications to increase government organizations’ participation, transparency and collaboration. The book contains a review of the current state of the public administration literature and shows how Government 2.0 activities can potentially challenge or change the existing paradigms. It includes an overview of each of the tools used to increase participation, transparency and collaboration. The book also highlights case examples at the local, state, federal and international levels. The author offers recommendations for the implementation processes at the end of each chapter and includes suggested readings and references.

Endorsements

Comprehensive and compelling, Social Media in the Public Sector makes the case that to achieve Government 2.0, agencies must first adopt Web 2.0 social technologies. Ines Mergel explains both how and why in this contemporary study of traditional institutions adopting and adapting to new technologies.
Beth Simone Noveck, United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer (2009-2011)

Ines Mergel moves beyond the hype with detailed, comprehensive research on social media technologies, use, management and policies in government. This book should be required reading for researchers and public managers alike.
Jane Fountain, Professor and Director, National Center for Digital Government, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Professor Mergel has produced a foundational work that combines the best kind of scholarship with shoe-leather reporting and anthropology that highlights the debates that government agencies are struggling to resolve and the fruits of their efforts as they embrace the social media revolution. Social Media in the Public Sector is a first and sets a high standard against which subsequent analysis will be measured.
Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

Dr. Mergel is an award-winning author who again wields her story skills in this book. She excels in explaining in concrete, practical terms how government managers can use social media to serve the public. Her book puts years of research into one handy guide. It’s practical. It’s readable. And it’s an essential read.
John M. Kamensky, Senior Fellow, IBM Center for The Business of Government

JVWR: MuniGov 2.0, A New Residency Requirement: Local Government Professionals in Second Life

Michelle Garder, Pam Broviak, Bill Greeves and I have just published a paper in the Journal of Virtual World Research. Here is the abstract and link to the pdf file:

The virtual world Second Life allows social interactions among avatars  – online representations of real-life people – and is slowly adopted in the public sector as a tool for innovative ways to interact with citizens, interorganizational collaboration, education and recruitment (Wyld 2008). Governments are setting up online embassies, voting simulations, interactive learning simulations and virtual conferences. While there are  very prominent and elaborate examples on the federal and state level of government, we have seen only a handful of applications on the local level. One of these local examples is  MuniGov2.0  – a collaboration of municipal government professionals who regularly  meet in Second Life. The goal of the group is  to  support each others geographically  distributed implementation attempts to incorporate new technologies in the public sector. Interviews with the founding members and core group show clear mission-specific needs  that Second Life collaboration can support, but that there are also technological and behavioral challenges involved using this highly interactive environment. The article will highlight the challenges, how they were met, lessons learned, future directions of the  project and ends with recommendations for the use of Second Life in local government.

Full reference:

Mergel, I., Gardner, M., Broviak, P., Greeves, B. (2011): MuniGov20, A New Residency Requirement: Local Government Professionals in Second Life, in: Journal of Virtual World Research, Volume 4, Number 2: Goverment & Military.

Keywords: Virtual worlds, Second Life, online collaboration, local government, Gov 2.0, Web   2.0

 

 


			

New working paper: Tying the network together

David Lazer (Northeastern & Harvard University) and I have just posted a new working paper titled “Tying the network together – Evaluating the Impact of an Intervention into the Advice Network of Public Managers“. It’s up on the Social Science Research Network for comments. We are in the process of making some substantial changes to it, but would love to hear your feedback!

Here is the abstract:

Networks are often see as emergent and self managed; and yet much of the research on networks examines how networks affect the effectiveness of systems and individuals. Is it possible to intervene in the configuration of a network to improve how it functions? Here we evaluate the impact of an intervention to change the array of relationships connecting a set of distributed public managers—State Health Officials (SHOs). SHOs were brought together for a one week executive educational program near the beginning of their tenures. This paper evaluates the question as to whether this program had long run effects on the ties among SHOs. Using a combination of survey and interview data, we find that there is a substantial effect on the probability of ties between individuals that attend the program together, relative to individuals who attend the program in different cohorts. Given recent findings that highlight the importance of interpersonal networks in the effectiveness of individual managers, this suggests a potential role for interventions to improve the efficiency of dispersed, public sector manager to manager networks.

Lazer, David and Mergel, Ines A., Tying the Network Together: Evaluating the Impact of an Intervention into the Advice Network of Public Managers (July 8, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1881674