Operations research, analytics make government more efficient

By NICHOLAS G. HALL | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: April 25, 2018

On March 20, the deputy director of Office of Management and Budget released President Donald Trump’s Management Agenda. The agenda emphasizes the federal government’s need to maximize the use of data and analytics to support policymakers’ decision-making processes. It reads in part:

“Efficient and effective decision-making is fact-based and transparent. However, Government agencies do not consistently apply data-driven decision-making practices. Smarter use of data and evidence is needed to orient decisions and accountability around service and results.”

A robust, holistic approach to the use of data would enable the federal government to achieve more efficient and effective outcomes for the American people. More specifically, the wider use of operations research, or O.R., and analytics across all aspects of government would save countless lives, save millions of dollars and help to solve some of the nation’s most challenging problems.

In simple terms, O.R. and analytics are the application of advanced mathematical tools that enable organizations to turn complex challenges into substantial opportunities. They do so by structuring data into solutions and insights for making better decisions and improving results. These powerful tools do not merely evaluate problems, they relentlessly seek solutions that provide the best possible outcome. That is, they deliver prescriptive value to decision makers.

For some policymakers in Washington, O.R. and analytics are already integrated into their work. In fact, O.R. and analytics trace their roots to World War II, when military planners leveraged statistics and advanced mathematics to solve logistical problems and plan combat operations. In the decades since, the military, the service academies and the intelligence community have extensively embraced these tools.

Other parts of the federal government have applied O.R. and analytics in a variety of ways, including:

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eradicating the last pockets of the Wild Polio virus around the world.

 The Federal Communications Commission completing the world’s first two-sided auction of valuable low-band electromagnetic spectrum, contributing more than $7 billion to reduce the federal deficit.

 The Federal Aviation Administration deploying the Airspace Flow Program to improve air traffic management and reduce flight delays, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

The power of O.R. and analytics also extends to state and local governments, including:

 The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections transforming the complicated process of assigning inmates to one of the department’s 25 facilities. What once took seven employees nearly a week to accomplish can now be completed in less than 10 minutes. The results include better assignments and substantial savings.

 The New York City Police Department creating the Domain Awareness System, a robust network of sensors, databases, devices, software and infrastructure that informs a variety of tactical and strategic decisions that officers make every day, saving at least $50 million per year.

In the private sector, O.R. and analytics have transformed how leaders make decisions and how organizations achieve increased efficiency and better outcomes. Examples of the far-ranging impact of these tools include:

 UPS revolutionizing its package and delivery operations and reducing annual fuel consumption by 10 million gallons and CO2 output by 100,000 metric tons, saving more than $300 million per year.

 Norfolk Southern improving average freight train arrivals from 100 minutes late to eight minutes early, saving $400 million a year.

 The Pediatric Heart Network creating and implementing a clinical practice guideline that improved surgical outcomes for patients while realizing a cost savings of 27 percent per patient.

In Washington, there is broad bipartisan agreement that various federal government programs and missions continue to operate under antiquated methods, accrue excessive costs and perform inefficiently. The Government Accountability Office frequently publishes reports of programmatic failures that negatively affect the American people. The president’s Management Agenda reinforces the need for the improvements that O.R. and analytics routinely deliver.

O.R. and analytics offer improved solutions to a plethora of governmentwide challenges on the horizon. From predicting disease outbreaks, to the creation of next-generation military systems, nurturing and regulation of the sharing economy, the development of the connected city and more, O.R. and analytics open a new frontier of efficiency and improved outcomes for American governance.

These are not new or unproven concepts. For decades, O.R. and analytics have delivered proven and profound impacts in the public and private sectors.

The American people deserve the most effective and efficient government possible. Embracing O.R. and analytics as a core component of Washington decisionmaking and policymaking will enable the application of proven methodologies for saving lives, saving money and solving problems.

Nicholas G. Hall is the 2018 president of INFORMS, the largest international association of operations research and analytics professionals.

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