The concept of data-driven meetings was popularized in the mid-1990s by the New York City Police Department, which dubbed them “CompStat” meetings. Through the systematic analysis of trends, they were seen to contribute to a significant drop in crime and the concept was eagerly replicated by other cities (Citi-Stat) and a number of states (State-Stat). Harvard professor Bob Behn studied this phenomenon and wrote a book about “Performance-Stat” as a leadership style and way of thinking and behaving, not just an administrative process innovation.
At the federal level, data-driven meetings became more prevalent at the agency level beginning in 2009, according to a 2011 report by Harry Hatry and Elizabeth Davies of the Urban Institute. Their use was reinforced by requirements in the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010, which the Government Accountability Office assessed in a 2015 report. Both the Urban Institute and GAO reported positive effects and identified some best practices.
The spread of management innovations, like data-driven reviews, is oftentimes problematic in different policy, geographic, and cultural settings. Sometimes an innovation transfers well, other times, not so well. But the spread of data-driven meetings quickly found an international following.
The United Kingdom created its own version of data-driven meetings in 2001, which were orchestrated by a newly-created organization reporting directly to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit initially focused on improving citizen-facing services in four major policy areas: education, health, transportation, and crime. Its first head, Michael Barber, subsequently wrote a book in 2008 about how the unit was set up and operated. His advice was similar to Behn’s—using structured, data-informed processes are important, but the key to success is for the political leader to adopt the processes as the basis for a results-oriented, problem-solving leadership style.
The Delivery Unit concept spread rapidly in South America, beginning about five years ago. A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank assessed its use in 14 South American governments and concluded that, “under certain preconditions,” its use improved management and attained “results that have a direct impact on citizens.” For example, Chile and Peru focused on complex goals at the outcome level, such as reducing childhood malnutrition and increasing student math test scores. Other countries, including Costa Rica and Guatemala, focused on delivering services such as supplying medicines to hospitals or paving roads.
The study’s authors, Mariano Lafuente and Sebastián González, emphasize that the ultimate aim of delivery units “is to ensure that promises are kept.”
But achieving success wasn’t without institutional or political challenges. The authors’ survey of different delivery units across South America identified a series of challenges faced in implementing this approach.
Key Lessons Learned
Interestingly, the lessons learned in South America have a familiar ring to them, since they parallel many of the lessons offered by Behn’s research on the state and local Performance-Stat approach:
The authors conclude that data-driven meetings using the delivery unit approach “are destined to become part of a wider ecosystem of public management innovations” used by agencies to improve decisionmaking, strengthen coordination between agencies and levels of government, and leverage better performance. They believe this is the case not only because of the widespread adaptation of this approach by so many different kinds of governments across the globe, but also because digital transformations in government are allowing data to be easily collected, shared, and analyzed.