Playing by the numbers

Playing by the numbers

Thomas R. Temin

After attending the annual conference of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils in Dallas and a few other events last month, my head was swimming in juxtaposed numbers. If you have ever read the much-copied Harper's Index in Harper's Magazine, you'll know what I mean.

Some examples:

  • Number of visits the Social Security Administration's Web site got last year: 12 million.
  • Number of visits the Nasdaq stock exchange's Web servers get per day: 25 million.
  • Cost to the IRS of providing one form to 1,000 taxpayers via the Web: 1 cent.
  • Premium the state of Virginia charges for a car registration online: $2.
  • Number of subcontractors supplying critical replacement parts to the Air Force under the Army's governmentwide Rapid Response to Critical Systems Requirements Support program: 60.
  • Number of vendors that supply Dell Computer Corp. with 95 percent of its materials: 46.
  • Number of stovepipe student financial aid systems the Education Department is consolidating into a single data center: 11.
  • Number of pages in Education's re-engineering plan: 500.

Systems people and program managers live by numbers, statistics and technical parameters. Some are straightforward and not subject to much interpretation: Vendors have seven calendar days to submit technical proposals for a bid deadline, say. Other numbers need a context to have real meaning: The number of online returns the IRS received in the last tax season rose 400 percent.

It's not easy to choose numbers that give a qualitative picture. If the purpose of a program is to improve a service or a business process, numbers by themselves are often inadequate at expressing higher customer satisfaction or improved employee morale.

The idea of vision has become corny-sounding from overuse. But your vision for a system needn't be ethereal or hopelessly ideal. It can express what numbers alone cannot.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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