Redefining Credibility in a 21st Century Tech Economy

One doesn’t have to look too far to see the extreme dysfunction of US politics today.  It seems everyday there is a news story released that drops us to a new all-time low for the leadership in our Country.  Part of me wonders if this sliding backward in our politics and our culture is intentional.  Are we seeing an exaggeration of an ultra-traditional mindset being displayed so that everyone asks this simple and honest question about their representation:  Is the guy (or in rare instance) the gal representing me considered credible?

I was talking with a member of my family today about some recent political news.  Stating complete frustration with our current situation, she indicated that nothing will ever change in our politics until term limits are introduced.  That got me thinking!  Are we actively debating and potentially redefining credibility in our culture today?  Where at one time credibility was defined based on tenure and long-standing success in a role, political or otherwise, it seems as though the suggestion of term limits requires that we define credibility differently.  How does one define credibility when one only has three 4-year terms to lead, as in this example from a local municipality in Long Island, NY?  If it’s no longer tenure, what is it?  What defines personal and professional credibility?  These are critical questions we should be exploring as term limits will likely be the only way we:

a) break our political stalemate to move past partisanship and on to a more results-driven model for governance and

b) force our society and culture to be more responsive to innovation associated with 21st century technology economy, where machine learning is literally automating jobs away as an exponential rate.  I am especially concerned about this given the announcement from the World Economic Forum that most of the jobs lost in the next eight years will be jobs currently held by women.

In a political environment where term limits are consider “de facto,” we must look at the effectiveness of our representation with very different measure in mind.  Our 21st century internet-driven tech economy has put more power at our fingertips than we’ve ever had.  Power to access, sort and interpret mounds of relevant data in our quest to drive better outcomes.  Power to collect new and relevant information from constituents and colleagues within a matter of minutes, versus weeks or months.  Power to leverage modern communication channels to become, in the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “a molder of consensus.”  As we begin to consider just how we move our Democracy and society forward with an eye toward creating a Government, a society more responsive, more effective and less hyperbolic, limiting terms for elected officials is a good first step.  This will force the conversation in communities, large and small, about how we redefine credibility for future generations.  This conversation will be educational, one that will harken back to another great Martin Luther King, Jr. quote:  “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”  Because if we have proven anything in the last decade, we have proven that credibility is NOT a function of tenure.  If anything, tenure can have a corrupting effect.  Credibility in the future will be a function of an individuals ability to think intensively, to think critically and to live a life of true character.  Anything less is selling our society and our Democracy short.



There is no greater example of the influence that data can have on our society than the most recent revelations made public through the #MeToo campaign on social media. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you’ve surely heard about the #MeToo movement?

#MeToo (the most recent movement) started several weeks back after initial stories began to emerge about Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, who as of today has been accused of sexual predation by as many as 50 different women.  Silence seemed to be the tool he and other power-hungry men have used to be able to do, say and act exactly as they wanted, taking advantage of their position to exploit women sexually.  Well, silence was broken a few weeks ago when a female Hollywood actor shared #MeToo and encouraged others to do the same.  This single act resulted in an explosive amount of data from millions of women worldwide who shared the hashtag and, in many cases, their own story of sexual assault or abuse.  In all, the movement reached 1.7 million Twitter users and and 85 different countries.  A Google search of “#MeToo” just today delivered over 98 million results.

This is the power of data!  With all of these victims of sexual assault and abuse coming forward, women are creating a powerful conversation within the media and in their communities about the prevalence and persistence of this problem.  RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) indicates that there is a sexual assault every 98 seconds in this Country and that 9 out of every 10 victims of rape are female.  The scope of the problem is huge and this movement brought this data front and center to YOUR newsfeed, allowing women to talk openly with others about their experiences. It is our hope that the data will have a civilizing effect on our population, creating more empathy within our culture for victims of assault and abuse and creating greater awareness in the hearts and minds of potential abusers.


Non-Profit Sector: A Most Special Responsibility

Giving an organization money is a full-on endorsement of their work. In our modern “small Government, minimal tax, capitalism” culture, we are all now voting with our dollars. So for this reason I have to ask…

  • How confident are you as a budget administrator that the not-for-profit organizations that you, at maximum, budget for annually or, at minimum, endorse are adequately fulfilling their mission to the community that you and they aim to serve?
  • Are you confident that they will stand up to an organized impact assessment?
  • Are they doing good in your community to the degree they take resources from the taxpayers?

Let’s back up and provide some background. Not-for-profit organizations surround Government and public sector organizations to fill in the gaps that exist between supply of services and demand from community. A public sector organization cannot and never will fulfill all the needs a community has and this is by design. Not-for-profit companies pitch their organizations to the public sector as covering the critical “last mile” of services that the highly budget conscious and financially scrutinized public sector cannot address.

Ben-Ner and Van Hoomisen released a landmark study, “NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS IN THE MIXED ECONOMY: A Demand and Supply Analysis,” which outlines some of the incentives of not-for-profit companies. Referring to trust goods as services where there is an inherent conflict between the community’s demand for services and an organization’s desire to minimize supply of services, they write:

“Stakeholders of trust goods might look more favorably on an organization which is not-for-profit, but some suspicion regarding the organization’s incentives would undoubtedly remain. The not-for-profit status indicates only that the organization does not directly distribute profit; and stakeholders recognize that the incentive to deceive can arise out of other motivations as well. The organization’s managers may, for example, seek to expand their salaries, perquisites, status, or power, may want to hold onto their jobs, or may wish to pursue their own preferences regarding the product of the organization. (page 527)”

While in most cases the not-for-profit organizations exhibit the best of intentions for servicing the unmet needs of the public sector, unless there is on-going analysis of the organization’s impact, complacency can often set in and prevent innovation and evolution.

What is critical to understand is that not-for-profit organizations, of all types of organizations, require as much, if not more, financial scrutiny than public sector to ensure that they continue to evolve their services to address the growing and evolving needs of the community.

The current process for analyzing not-for-profit is the annual Program Evaluation. Most program evaluations are lengthy, subjective and delivered in narrative format with very little scrutiny for actual community impact. We have worked with organizations that spend tens of thousands of dollars annually to conduct their program evaluations, which simply poll the same community they serve for performance ranking of the not-for-profit’s programs.

This isn’t an evaluation of impact. While well-intentioned, the level of confirmation bias that exists here is quite obvious. If I’m a member of the community that benefits from the programs offered, am I really going to give the organization poor marks?

There is natural incentive to extend the well-meaning not-for-profit organization high marks for performance because if they don’t, a free resource would be eliminated. This is especially important if, for instance, you are a Government organization or a public school district that is sending kids a free after-school program.

It is incumbent upon you to know the real impact that this organization is having on the community you share because your collaboration is a full-on endorsement of their impact. It may be prudent to review your critical partners annually for impact to avoid stagnation and influence-peddling within the community you serve.

Regular impact studies will only benefit the community you serve by encouraging on-going analysis of best practices and organizational performance.

Model Democracy

The foundation of our Country’s political representation is being challenged at every turn right now and rightfully so.  While the idea of local representatives, i.e. Senate and Congressional, traveling a great distance to communicate the desires and values of their constituency was necessary 240 years ago, it is not today.  To steal an overused phrase from Thomas Friedman, “The World is Flat,” which means that communication and access to information has been completely democratized, allowing every individual in our Country and, frankly, in our World to contribute their ideas and input themselves to our “model” democracy.

But with 300 million people in the US alone, how do we gather, galvanize and act upon all of these ideas and the information available to us?  I like to say that we need to crawl before we walk and walk before we run.  Our Government is truly at a crawl right now when it comes to leveraging data for the benefit of civic engagement, policy decision-making and governance. 

Speaking to a local city leader recently, I was informed that recent data transparency initiatives within their institution have introduced tremendous challenges to their culture.  While this doesn’t surprise me, it is quite frustrating.  Government data is the people’s data after all, right?  Isn’t the Government supposed to be working for us, representing us in its work within the community?  Yes!  So, why are Government employees struggling with data transparency?  Maybe because of the accountability that comes along with it!?  Who knows, but I believe this needs to change. 

To encourage this transition from a crawl to a walk, data scientists and technology firms need to assist Governments, Federal, State and Local, to better leverage data as a story-telling tool.  By encouraging growth on an employee-by-employee basis in the area of public data analysis, we are driving more open-mindedness, rationality and objectivity into our Government. 

As this evolves, we can create a more responsive and customer-minded “public service” culture

Then we can run!  What does it mean to run in this area of data analysis? 

  • It means that Governments will proactively and intentionally source data from ‘the people’ it represents as a way of optimizing Governmental action with community input. 
  • It means we are truly living the “model” democracy that our Founding Fathers dreamed about 240 years ago, one that is by, for and about ‘the people.’ 
  • It means that we are minimizing, possibly eliminating, ideology, self-righteousness, individual agenda and political dysfunction from our Governmental institutions, allowing ‘the people’ more of a say in how they are represented. 
  • It means Government will truly represent the heart of ‘the people’ it was designed to serve.

We have a long way to go, but we are on the path.  The infrastructure is in place to support this transition, but, as with all change, the road is long and requires patience, perseverance and a realistic expectation of timeline.  It took us 240 years for our institutions to get here and it may take us a few decades to transform them to the “model” democracy worth building upon.

The Four Difficulties of Data

These days it seems everyone is talking “data,” and how important it is for organizations to use data to drive decision-making and innovation. Yet few seem to offer a clear process about how an organization can become “data-driven.”

This is the first in a series of blog posts designed to outline how an organization can plan their data journey and anticipate the common obstacles along the way.

Small to mid-size businesses, non-profits and public sector agencies face four hard problems in getting from raw data to execution excellence. Most have data that they could use to improve their operations, but they are not utilizing it effectively because:

Lack of Value Recognition: They often do not know the true value of the data they and, because of their size, they do not have the money or expertise in-house that can assess that value or make the case for extracting it.

Lack of Knowledge in How to Handle Data: Even if they do recognize the value of their data, they often don’t understand how to get at that value. The undifferentiated mass of information that they have accumulated can be quite large and is often poorly organized. They neglect their data because of the sheer size and complexity of it; they are uninformed about best practices in managing, organizing, presenting, securing, storing, and visualizing their data that could let them tame their data.

Lack of Skill and Expertise in Extracting Data Insights: If they have gotten past those difficulties in dealing with their data, they may still have challenges in cleaning and processing it into usable form for use in analysis and prediction. They may be unaware of gaps or inaccuracies in their data that could invalidate their conclusions and lead to errors in decision-making, with potentially disastrous results. The skills needed in these processes are highly specialized and require the expertise of a data scientist, and data science skills are quite rare and are thus prohibitively expensive for most SMBs, non-profits and agencies.

Inability to Apply the Lessons of Their Data: For the organization that has spent the time and money scrubbing and wrangling and organizing and securing their data, there is yet another hurdle. Beyond the technological expertise needed to achieve these hard skills goals, there are the necessary soft skills to actually make the data usable within an organization’s culture. The results of the data journey are not complete until the people who will be using the data are trained in how to maintain their data management systems and understand how to integrate data insights into their day to day operations. This means they will need software tools adapted to their situation, training, and customer support that ranges from helping leadership guide change management to answering front-line staff’s questions and concerns.

Each of these four difficulties is solvable, an often more easily than one might imagine. Future posts in this series will look at each of these issues in turn.

Hiding In Plain Sight

There’s a tremendous amount of data available to the general public right now as the data transparency drive forges forth. A simple search on the web for open data sets proves as much, returning more than one and a half million results. Some of these give access to raw data, while others return various interpretations of such.


Civilizing Politics

As the 2016 political season heats up across this great Country of ours, I am struck by the choice that the voters will have for President in November.  Never have we ever seen two more contradictory candidates between the two parties than we have this year.  On one side, while not perfect, we have a tried and tested political leader that has spent years studying and leading policy change in the US.  On the other side, we have an outsider who has spent years honing his public persona as a fiery and authoritative businessman.  Each has a strong base of support, but each is approaching their role as policy leader from a very different perspective.  As a result, this election is more than simply a choice for leader of the free world, it is a test to see how truly rational our electorate in 2016.

Policy decisions, like political leaders, are evolving right in front of us.  Policy analysis two decades ago was a relatively private process relegated to those with political access and experience, leaving the voter to analyze primarily the character, values or persona of the candidate as a way of determining the potential effectiveness of their political leadership.  All this has changed with the flood of data available today as a result of the Big Data, Open Government and Transparency initiatives of the last two administrations.  Today, voters have the ability to analyze more than the candidate. They have the ability to analyze the data available regarding the candidate’s policy decisions (past) and proposals (future) as a actual and rational determinant of their political leadership. 

Data can play a significant role in decision support, both in private business and in public discourse, and its efficacy as a tool for quick education and storytelling will only improve as we expand the use of data visualization applications.  Pouring over tables of numbers is frustrating and intimidating for the typical voter, but being able to offer voters the ability see policy data trends visually and graphically offers better education and engagement.  It can be expected that the application of data visualization technology partnered with social media tools for political communication can have an incredible influence on the tone of our politics going forward. 

While the decision of the voters in the fall has the potential to be based in ideology and dogma, alternatively and preferentially, it could be based in rational analysis of data. When voters make this leap to better engagement and education, there will be greater sanity and stability to our politics. 

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