Why Federal Managers Should Get Worse at Doing Data Drills

We have lots of clients who spend inordinate amounts of time putting data drills together. Does any of this sound familiar? • We need your budget numbers for FY 14-19 by 3.

• We need to know all the funding you’ve sent to xyz place by 1.

• We need answers for these questions for the record by 12.

It can seem like an endless onslaught, and that all the government does is ask questions of other parts of the government. It also devours precious time from your staff to respond, and from your management team to make sure it all sounds right and doesn’t create some political firestorm. It also puts a lot of stress and time pressure on everyone, and in the end, you don’t get much for it.

For example, one of my clients became really good at answering data drills. They had a whole team of people doing them and a big process with multiple reviews and lots of management team time. The people upstairs really appreciated it. They were repeatedly given pats on the back for being the best organization in their division at getting things back on time and with a good level of quality. Sounds great, right? But each year when it came time to parcel out new resources, they got nothing. The other organizations that did such a bad job got it all. What’s going on here?

Data drills just aren’t that valuable. They might be urgent, but they aren’t important. Some of the data ends up going nowhere and the people that do use the results aren’t usually decision makers. Worse still, it distracts time from innovation and doing your mission. Upper management almost never see data drill responses, but they sure see whether you’re making stuff happen in your mission space. So, taking resources out of a high value activity that serves your customer and putting them into improving at a low value activity, like data drills, isn’t the way to go.

So here’s my advice: get worse at doing data drills. If you’re running an organization, give the responsibility for doing it to someone else and don’t make it one of your star people. Keep you and your stars on the mission. When you get your hand slapped for making a mistake, just let it go. I’ve never heard of anyone losing budget or facing any real consequences for doing B minus work on data drills. (You should be able to get to C plus or B minus and be fine. Just don’t get so bad that you’re an F.)

There are exceptions, though. If that drill is something you know senior management is really focused on, or if the drill could actually affect your budget, it pays to spend a little more time. As a former Congressional staffer, I can tell you that hardly anyone on Capitol Hill is reading your QFR responses, and I doubt the Under Secretary is spending her days reading your Congressional Justification. So what do you think?