“Now what do I do?” Managers and other decision makers often find themselves asking that question when faced with the performance data they’ve collected from citizen surveys, internal records, or other sources. And it’s a good question to ask.

My colleagues and I provide survey results to city and county managers that start with what their residents think about the quality of community life, service delivery, public trust, and civic involvement. Once managers have received and had time to think about the data, I want them to ask me, “Now what do I do?”

To know what to do, it’s best to know what strikes you as a problem and then to determine what caused the problem—because solutions vary. But it’s tough to figure out causes. Can you pinpoint what caused your last cold, for example? Still, if you even just speculate about a cause, say, for poor ratings by residents of your community’s parks and recreation offerings, you are on the road to a reasonable solution.

Once the data are in hand, here are seven steps a decision maker can take after asking “Now what do I do?” We use these steps with managers who have commissioned surveys of their residents, and they can be adapted for other kinds of performance data as well.

  1. Listen: Think of the survey as an eavesdropping device. You get to hear what your residents think about the most fundamental parts of the business you are in.
  2. Feel: Once the survey results are in, take a moment to check how they sit with you. Rather than pretend that management decisions are made strictly by the numbers and that emotion should play no part in the power of data, perhaps the first question a manager should ask is not “does it make sense?” but “does it feel right?”
  3. Think: Once you’ve identified what survey results resonate with you, examine them. Do they square with other data you have? Do they confirm what you and others have observed?
  4. Convene: Managers are not in this alone. There are some, maybe many, staff who have more direct experience with every topic in your survey. Gather them together with a set agenda and a reasonable time frame. Identify three to five key areas for your jurisdiction to do something about – communicate, change services, analyze more deeply, convene additional partners. Define the outcomes you seek, assign staff, create a timeline, and identify metrics of success.
  5. Empower: Send staff back to their departments and have all or select line staff go through steps 1-4, but focused on those things that the department can do to support success in the three to five key areas you have identified.
  6. Experiment: Acting on data always involves some risk – as does failing to act. No one can be sure if a best practice in a textbook will result in the intended outcome in your jurisdiction. One way to reduce risk is to test the ideas that come from staff.
  7. Evaluate: Actions in place, you have to revisit what you’ve done to determine if you’re getting what you wanted. Whether you’ve gone the way of a formal experiment or have simply instituted a new jurisdiction-wide policy or program, assess success. Nimble organizations can redirect their actions if a path to improvement proves to be a dead end. Absent evaluation, you are bowling with a sheet drawn across the pins.

Wrong calls still are possible, but these seven steps offer a self-correcting system for decision-making and increase the odds that “Now what do I do?” will lead to the right answer.

Adapted and condensed from the post “Getting Past, ‘Huh?’ The Not-so-Straight Line from Data to Decisions” in PA Times, published by the American Society for Public Administration.


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