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Four Critical Success Factors to Effectively Managing Data as an Asset

No organization that survives is static. Reorganizations happen. Product and service offerings are refined. Technology changes. New legislation and regulations are introduced. Of all an agency’s assets, perhaps only data serves as a rock around which the swirling waves of change ebb and flow. In this way, data may be a protector and an informant of an agency’s mission and outcomes in the face of continual change.

Data is an essential asset. Federal, state and local government agencies use data to reduce uncertainty about decisions, affect behavior, improve performance, comply with mandates and lower costs. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for example, uses data to target inbound cargo for inspection. The Veterans Health Administration uses real-time data on patients to detect breakouts of healthcare-acquired infections. The Internal Revenue Service uses data to determine what taxpayers have paid and what refunds need to be distributed. Without data, these three agencies — and every public sector agency, for that matter — would be hard-pressed to execute their mission effectively.

Like any other asset, mismanagement or quality problems not only can depreciate the value of data, but can have additional negative consequences (e.g., incorrect decisions, cost deficiencies, regulatory non-compliance, mission failure and loss of readiness) that can create ripple effects across the agency. Examples of this, unfortunately, are widespread. For example, the Government Accountability Office found $619 billion in 2012 grant and loan misreporting and data quality problems in USASpending.gov. An audit of the State of California’s employee systems found employees were being granted holiday credit incorrectly in their leave accounting system, with timesheets offering 800 hours of leave instead of 80.2.

So if data is an asset with value, why is it not treated like other balance sheet assets? Perhaps the answer lies in the unusual characteristics that define data.

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This article was originally published in the Fall edition of the Journal of Government Financial Management. Copyright 2016. Association of Government Accountants. AGA® and the Journal of Government Financial Management® are registered trademarks. Republished with permission. All rights reserved.