Get smart with your data
State, Coast Guard, FDA put business intelligence to work
- By David Essex
- Feb 14, 2008
Government agencies often have an acute case of performance anxiety. Tight budgets force managers to do more with fewer resources, and mandates such as the Government Performance and Results Act demand mechanisms for gauging the performance of tax dollars, products and services, irrespective of cost.
Business intelligence programs can make it easier to gather the statistics and other information for answering the 'how are we doing' question for both financial and non-financial performance metrics, then manage the plans and projects that are designed to improve performance.
BI's raw material is structured data, though the newest software also works on the unstructured data in word processor files and Web pages.
This twofold value is readily apparent in a Business Objects application running in the State Department's Public Diplomacy office.
Cherreka Montgomery, the office's performance measurement officer, said it is the first application at State to track performance-based budgeting at the level of program outcomes, not just dollars. 'This has never been done for Public Diplomacy,' she said.
The previous system examined 900 performance measures that were slanted toward shortterm outputs, not long-term outcomes. The new Business Objects application reduced the hodgepodge to 15 measurements, nine of which are annual and long-term outcomes, such as surveys that gauge how well foreign audiences understand the United States.
Starting with a dashboard populated by manual extraction from an SPSS database, the agency next plans a much more ambitious performance-based budgeting system, that it will deploy it to seven posts this spring, Montgomery said.
The Coast Guard's Acquisition Directorate uses the business intelligence suite from SAS for financial reporting and analysis in addition to performance management, said Greg Cohen, chief of business management and metrics. The agency began using the software to generate metrics and reports on products in the Deepwater infrastructure improvement program but has broadened its use; now more than 300 people use it.
Cohen runs the software on two servers with the help of a few consultants and no dedicated information technology staff, and he handles training on data querying and reporting completely in-house.
The system has transformed the agency budget into a daily monitoring and forecasting tool, Cohen said, which helps not only in printing monthly and annual reports but also in influencing the final results. The agency has more recently brought SAS BI into its human resources department, he said.Layered definition
'Business intelligence is a word that gets overloaded and overused,' said Bill Hostmann, research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.
All comprehensive BI suites consist of three main components. The bottom layer gathers data from disparate sources and makes it available to the higher layers. Extract, transform and load technology, sold separately a few years ago, is critical to this layer, as are integration and data-cleansing tools.
The second big component contains the reporting tools and dashboards for displaying the data in useful forms.
But what puts the intelligence in BI is the analytical layer, often in the form of online analytical processing software, which helps detect patterns and inform better decisions based on the data. It can also include modules for performance-based budgeting, planning and forecasting. Performance management 'is basically an overlay ' an application, if you will ' of all those technologies,' said Karen Knowles, director of SAS federal business.
Knowles cited a long list of customers, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Health and Human Services Department, that also use SAS BI for fraud detection, risk analysis and identification of improper payments by programs such as Medicare.
The software is 'taking a look at large volumes of data that the human eye cannot get through, and detecting trends and anomalies,' she said. The Food and Drug Administration employs it heavily in studies. 'All the clinical drug data is received by the FDA in SAS format,' she said. In addition, the military is using the same financial fraud-detection technology to spot insurgency groups that plant improvised explosive devices in Iraq.
BI's modularity presents a challenge in selecting vendors. Some well-known names are niche vendors, and a flurry of acquisitions has jumbled product lines and market positions.
Analysts and vendors seem to agree, however, that just four companies sell comprehensive suites and now dominate the market: Business Objects, Cognos, Oracle and SAS. In addition, Gartner counts Microstrategy, Information Builders and Microsoft as serious contenders.
If you need financial performance management, the Hyperion products, including Essbase, which Oracle acquired last year, remain the best bet, said Dan Vesset, vice president of business analytics research at IDC. 'They've been in this market the longest,' Vesset said.
If the nonfinancial side of performance matters the most, SAS' advanced analytics lead the pack, Vesset said, citing a strong customer base in government for applications such as fraud detection.
If enterprise querying and reporting is a weak spot or if you want to make data more accessible on the Web, look closely at Business Objects, which owns the Crystal Reports product line. 'They're the strongest reporting vendor, definitely,' Vesset said. Business Objects, which SAP was in the process of acquiring at press time, could benefit from the strong analytical technology in SAP's existing NetWeaver BI line, Vesset said, though it is unclear how the merger will affect the product offerings. SAP is a leading enterprise resource planning vendor.
In contrast, Cognos' comparative advantage continues to be in the planning and forecasting pieces of BI. And IBM's purchase of the company last month should enhance its stability while keeping the product line mostly intact because Big Blue offers no comparable products, although IBM's plans have not been revealed.
All this consolidation can help focus your selection process on the BI suites of middleware vendors that you have already invested in. An existing SAP ERP system might best be complemented with the Business Objects suite, while agencies that run the Oracle database or ERP platforms might first look to Oracle's Hyperion.
Likewise, infrastructures built on IBM's DB2 database or other IBM platforms will likley have tighter integration with Cognos' line. Vesset said a similar rationale applies to Microsoft's SQL Server-based BI products, which have significantly improved scalability and could appeal to agencies that have standardized on the Microsoft Windows and .NET platforms.
If your agency hasn't advanced very far through the first stages of BI and still needs better access, analysis and reporting of underutilized data, you could start with a niche vendor that specializes in those fundamentals.
That's because the vendors all speak SQL.
With Structured Query Language as the common tongue, it would be feasible, for example, to use Information Builders for operational reporting, Hyperion for financial performance management and Cognos for workforce planning on top of a human-resources database.
Vesset said the cost for a typical private or public organization averages $200,000, though large installations can reach the millions.
The recent industry moves bode well for agency budgets, though. 'I think there will be more discounting, and the customers will have more negotiation power,' Vesset said.Scaling hurdles
Many federal agencies, of course, also have other concerns in implementing a BI solution.
Meeting federal privacy and accessibility requirements and getting permission to access data owned by security-conscious agencies were among the Coast Guard's biggest hurdles, Cohen said. 'You just need to assure the database owner that you're not going to misuse their data.'
At State, it was a challenge convincing people of BI's value ' 'making sure they know these tools are here to help them,' Montgomery said.
'We are still trying to teach and demonstrate the value of these systems in public diplomacy.'Essex is a freelance technology writer.