@INFO.POLICY | Agencies ought to get on TRAC with their data

How many dresses did Bloomingdale’s sell last weekend?

I don’t know, but I am willing to bet that Bloomingdale’s does. They also
probably know where they were sold and the price, color, style and vendor of each dress.

Businesses spend a lot of money installing point-of-sale terminals and bar code
inventory systems so they have the ability to collect and use detailed information needed
for better management. Some of them, like Wal-Mart, do it with legendary success.

Let’s turn to the federal government. How many drug cases were referred by the FBI
to federal prosecutors last month? I don’t know, and neither does the Justice
Department. Which referrals were declined by which U.S. attorney’s offices and why?
Justice employees and other interested parties may care, but the department doesn’t
know. Justice has no management information system that enables the attorney general to
use real data to allocate resources, evaluate operations or determine priorities.

Justice is not the only federal agency that pays too little attention to management of
its people and activities. Better management has to start with better management
information. Let me offer an illustrative war story.

Years ago, the congressional subcommittee I worked for asked the FBI how many agents
were assigned to a high-profile case. The FBI said that it didn’t know. We were
stunned by the response. An agency that does not even know how it uses resources is not
practicing bad management. It is working under the absence of management.

To see what can be learned about government activities through the creative use of good
management information, point your Web browser to http://trac.syr.edu. This is not a
government site. It belongs to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse
University. TRAC is a nonprofit organization that collects administrative data from
Justice, the FBI, the IRS and other agencies. It turns the raw data into useful oversight
information and makes it available to the public.

If the same information were collated and used by the agencies, it would be called
management information.

Let’s look at an example straight from TRAC’s Web site. From 1992 to 1996,
the FBI referred 226,166 cases to prosecutors. Almost 30 percent were declined because
they were not legally sufficient, had weak evidence or showed no evidence of a crime.

If the FBI produced so many unprosecutable cases, perhaps something is wrong with its
referral system. But because the FBI does not itself aggregate the information, officials
are unaware of the problem. TRAC also found that the Drug Enforcement Administration and
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had a much better track record on referrals.

TRAC offers its services for use by reporters, public interest groups and others
interested in how government programs are being managed. Congressional committees and even
agencies themselves sometimes use TRAC data. TRAC exists because of the skill and
dedication of its founders and support from some very farsighted foundations.

TRAC staff includes Sue Long at Syracuse University. Long is a researcher who spent
decades fighting with the IRS to obtain basic administrative data. Staff member David
Burnham in Washington is an author of books about Justice and the IRS and a former
reporter with a sharp eye for what is newsworthy. Much of the data they obtain comes via
the Freedom of Information Act.

They also use demographic and economic data to measure agency performance on a per
capita basis and other measures. TRAC fills a need because federal agencies do not turn
administrative data into management information.

But if TRAC can do it, so can agencies. This suggests an opportunity for federal
webmasters to serve their agencies and the public at the same time.

Webmasters should examine what TRAC does and try to duplicate it on agency Web sites.
Turning raw data into information isn’t always easy, but TRAC does it and may tell
you how it is done. Even if an agency cannot manage TRAC’s sophisticated number
crunching, it should be able to make the raw data available.

TRAC’s activities show that there is a demand. It logged more than half a million
user sessions on the public management information portion of its Web site in six months.
All agency managers should show as much interest.   n

Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.

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