MeriTalk Survey Points to Big Government Getting Big Savings from Big Data

By Peter Bernstein June 18, 2013

The movie “Jerry McGuire” is famous for the line, “Show me the money!” But it’s also famous for Rene Zellweger’s line, uttered when her character takes back Tom Cruise with, “He had me at hello!” Suffice it to say that the good folks at the prestigious online community for government IT people, MeriTalk, had me with the headline, “New study, Smarter Uncle Sam:  The Big Data Forecast, predicts Big Data has the potential to substantially increase efficiency, enable smarter decisions, and save nearly $500 billion, or 14 percent of agency budgets.”

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you feel, the daily headlines are highlighting the fact that the U.S. government is very interested in data collection and analysis both big and small. This happens to be true even setting aside the massive intelligence community demand for really big data. Every federal agency produces huge amounts of structured and unstructured data and it has been clear for some time, and been a focus of the current administration, that this data be captured, secured, and analyzed because of its value for increasing government efficiency and effectiveness. This goes for operational reasons and in theory toward improving citizens’ customer experiences.

The MeriTalk numbers tell an interesting story

Along with the fact that MeriTalk reaches over 85,000 Federal government IT professionals, and thus has established itself as a voice that people listen to intently, the report itself commands attention because of the questions it explored and the answers that were revealed.

The report, underwritten by EMC, surveyed 150 Federal IT professionals. It looked at the following questions:

  • If agencies are taking the steps needed to operationalize the Big Data opportunity, what steps have they taken to get started?
  • Which Federal functions will win with big data?
  • What’s next?

There is a rather comprehensive infographic that goes with the report that is too big to reproduce here but is a nice visualization of the findings. However, you can also quickly see the impact of big data can have in the next few years in the below list of key findings. These include at a high level: 70 percent feel big data is mission critical and will help make the Federal government smarter, and also believe that big data is key to the ability to slash agency budgets by $500 billion (14 percent) of agency budgets across the Federal government.

Here are some of the other key observations.

Big Data Building Blocks: Agencies are taking steps to prepare for what big data has to offer. The report calls this “largely uncharted territory.” It posits as proof that much is being spent on proof of concepts the finding that nearly one-fourth of respondents have launched at least one big data initiative in the past years, and they are spending Big Data R&D dollars to:

  • Increase server storage capacity to house and analyze big data
  • Determine bandwidth needs for big data storage and analytics
  • Invest in advances data mining practices

Big Data Budget: 31 percent of respondents believe their agency has a sufficient big data strategy today. However, the current sequestration budget cuts pose a significant risk to the launching new big data programs.

When asked about budget as it relates to big data, 41 percent are experiencing budget cuts of more than 10 percent as a result of sequestration. When asked to identify the sequestration casualties, Federal IT executives identified the following:

  • 51 percent - training and workforce development
  • 48 percent - hardware upgrades
  • 41 percent - software upgrades
  • 40 percent - new application development

Future of Big Data: Looking ahead, Federal IT executives say agencies should significantly increase data management efforts, ideally tagging 46 percent of agency data and analyzing 45 percent. Recognizing big data’s impact on these goals, 70 percent of IT executives believe that in five years successfully leveraging Big Data will be critical to fulfilling Federal mission objectives. 

When asked how big data will help fulfill Federal missions:

  • 51 percent said big data will help improve processes and efficiency
  • 44 percent said big data will enhance security
  • 31 percent said big data will help their agency predict trends

“Big data is transforming government,” says Rich Campbell, chief technologist, Federal at EMC Corporation. “Each agency needs to first identify how big data can support their mission objectives, then assess the infrastructure, the savings opportunity, and start with a pilot project. There is enormous opportunity ahead for government to apply big and fast data to manage data growth, gain new insights from data, and innovate in ways that weren’t possible before due to technology limitations. It will enable agencies to be more productive, work smarter and be more agile – to keep up with the pace of change.”  

“Big data’s different from other IT initiatives – because it’s not an IT initiative,” said Steve O'Keeffe, Founder, MeriTalk. “If assuming the same behavior and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity, big data may provide the common-sense therapy we need to make better decisions in government.”

At the top, I noted that the full study, “Smarter Uncle Sam: The Big Data Forecast,” details that there are significant savings to be garnered from big data through operation efficiencies. The issue that is not addressed is that being operationally “smarter” and able to “predict trends” should only be part of the “Smarter Uncle Sam” story. We who live in the U.S. obviously would like our government to not waste tax payer dollars when it comes to basic operations. However, as with businesses, we would hope that smarts also becomes part of services delivery. It is one thing to spot trends and another to borrow the commercial term, create actionable insights that improve the delivery of services and customer experiences.     

In short, while sequestration may have IT’s attention focused on decreasing costs, there really was no quantification how all of these additional smarts would translate into better services. It may not be Federal IT’s role to try and quantify service delivery improvements in the manner their commercial colleagues must, but hopefully part of smarter is better. And, in an age where there is certainly substantial distrust of big government spending big dollars are becoming “smarter,” from a public relations perspective alone the Federal IT community might wish to have EMC underwrite another MeriTalk study that looks at the customer experience side of things. 

Just a thought.  

Edited by Alisen Downey
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