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Data-driven water works maximize budgets post-pandemic

March 16, 2021

With 15-40% budget cuts in the next year, the best way to do more with less is to use data to identify what works & reallocate savings.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by U.S. Pres. Biden brings much-needed relief for consumers. In addition, the federal stimulus for states and localities can facilitate technology modernization efforts.

The $350 billion earmarked for “states, localities and tribal governments” can be used to provide aid to “fund government services that were cut due to pandemic-related declines in revenue” as well as “make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.”

While unemployment, education, public health, and transportation are obviously immediate priorities, Congress and the White House aren’t leaving behind essential public services.

Even with this federal funding, state and local government budgets remain restricted and stretched thin — mayors have been told to cut budgets from 15 to 40 percent next year. To bridge these gaps, a good strategy is using data as a tool to identify what works, operational efficiencies and areas with the greatest need.

A results-driven strategy is even better. It prioritizes analysis and focuses in on key highly significant indicators from data, not all data, to determine if decisions and operations will meet goals. The ability to get information that directly correlates to short- and long-term results under conditions of limited funding and personnel is critical.

Data and dashboards are easier said than utilized because investments in efficient data management and data hygiene have been rare, if not anemic. Prior to partnering with KISTERS, many water districts had been relying on Excel spreadsheets and few had Access databases because those tools are considered free. However, the tradeoffs have been costly: excessive labor hours performing data quality control, limited confidence in data integrity of approved datasets, and knowledge loss as employees turnover and custom databases lack support expertise.

What have we learned since KISTERS pivoted from a consulting engineering firm to a water IT developer in the 80s? First, the demand for and effective use of information cannot be ignored. Second, funding for IT infrastructure including professional development to create & maximize value from data insights is increasingly competitive.

As water agencies weigh opportunity costs, which new initiatives and ongoing operations will strict budgets eliminate? Thin years are ahead but long-term data management has increasing returns. Close working relationships with the public sector have shown us that sustainability results from slow but deliberate pacing and value-generating expenditures.

The McKinsey consulting firm estimates that government, on a global scale, can use data analytics to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and have returns as high as 10 to 15 times their cost. Within the GovTech network, the return on investment has been reported to be as high as five to one when data is applied to tackle public problems.

Not all investment in data capacity is equal. Internal talent and a culture that appreciates uncovered insights outweighs IT tools, especially if shiny tools sit unused. A few questions will help to build analytical capacity in addition to motivate and retain employees:

  • What level(s) of internal data literacy will increase daily and weekly use of data and time-series applications to produce a healthy flow of insight?
  • How can these data be integrated with other datasets such as GIS, field notes, and satellite to identify intersectional trends in operations or over geographies?
  • What improvements or progress in quality of life can be shared to inform the public that customer service is a priority?

As local, county and state governments increase their commitment to data and results-driven service, water and sewer departments may find more allies who grant awards for infrastructure projects that reduce the service vulnerabilities. In time, they may also face less resistance for reasonable rate increases.