In this challenging time, government agencies are under more pressure than ever to put web and app analytics to work by creating insights that can help their stakeholders. That’s why we’ve compiled some of the biggest challenges in utilizing analytics for the public sector (based on our Federal agency, state university, tourism bureau, and business improvement district clients) and some tips for how to overcome them.
Problem: Legacy Platforms
The U.S. government, in partnership with various university researchers, effectively built the modern internet. It’s a colossal achievement, but it also has a downside. Because government workers were there first, many agencies have been online for decades, which can leave them feeling like their websites, tools, and platforms are as old as the internet itself. For instance, many government sites and platforms went live long before tools like client-side analytics were even invented. Making matters even more complicated, these older sites are often built on a hodge-podge of content management systems, some of which fell out of widespread use long ago and rely on server log files with less actionable information than client-side tracking. Government agencies must often manage a sprawling web of subdomains that not only run on different technology platforms but are also sometimes managed by different contractors or teams. The result is a limited ability to collect holistic data and numerous silos that prevent a unified view.
Solution: Breaking down data silos can be challenging for any organization. Although some of these challenges may be difficult to overcome without replatforming sites during your next major update, a lot of the barriers between legacy systems can be broken down or bridged with data management tools. Thankfully our job is made a lot easier on Federal projects like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ VA.gov by teaming with the US Digital Service (USDS), experts at modernizing data and apps. On that engagement, we implemented Google’s Big Data solution, BigQuery, to analyze petabytes of website, app, call-center and public health data.
On other engagements, we’ve installed tag management systems (TMSes) like Google Tag Manager and Adobe Launch or customer data platforms (CDPs) like Tealium, Segment and mParticle. These technologies ease the burden on developers who might otherwise be asked to add, evolve and maintain custom tracking code across dozens of domains and technologies. With Google Tag Manager, for example, once its snippet is installed on each page, technical marketers can publish tracking and advertising pixels without needing write access to or deep technical knowledge of each site. It allowed us to track a Bay Area Rapid Transit website in granular detail, including a new Plan Your Trip module. CDPs also have the capacity to integrate siloed data into a single source of truth, allowing you to make better data-driven decisions, develop insights, and share public data cohesively.
Problem: Too Many Stakeholders
By nature, public sector work involves a wide variety of stakeholders, civil servants, primes and subcontractors, NGOs, and private consultants — all of whom are impacted by, and may need to weigh in on, your approach to tracking and reporting on digital properties. Many times users cross over different domains owned by different groups, so there’s a lack of cohesive reporting of the user journey. With so many stakeholders, it’s easy to create silos that limit access to critical data, miss important user needs, and overlook the way data will be understood by different audiences. Take, for example, an organization like our client, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Data from the PBGC’s analytics dashboards might appear in front of some managers focused on pension professionals as well as others focused on pension recipients. It might also end up with the press, members of Congress, and other federal employees, all of whom have their own KPIs and expectations.
Solution: With so many stakeholders involved in the collection and use of government analytics, it’s important to be sure from the outset you’re capturing all the data you need. This includes giving strong consideration to data you may not need today, but may want to analyze in the future. We recommend first taking a step back to define and reach consensus on KPIs — often a set for each digital audience, as we did for PBGC — that will be used to assess success. Taking this time can help influence foundational measurement decisions so they fulfill short-term and long-term needs, ultimately saving time, effort and resources. After that, a full audit of your web analytics guided by this KPI discovery will ensure you’re accurately capturing all the data points you need to satisfy your stakeholders.
Once tracking is in place and customized to power your KPIs, visualizing the data in a comprehensive dashboard can help disparate stakeholders share the same fact base and focus on taking action. Including data sources beyond web and app analytics to add context makes your dashboard all the more powerful; think email, search and other marketing and publishing tools. For example, we helped stakeholders at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to understand audience engagement with new COVID-19 content by combining Google Analytics, Vzaar video, Campaign Monitor and Google Search Console data in a Google Data Studio dashboard.
Finally, documentation can serve as an invaluable asset to ensure that stakeholders trust and understand your dashboards, reports and the analytics behind them. Thorough documentation — ideally coupled with training — can help bridge the gap so that especially more distant stakeholders can independently and collaboratively draw insight from the data. For public organizations on the quest to establish a data-driven culture, it is vital to have clear, universally accessible resources available for all parties to aid their decision making.
Procuring a new business intelligence or analytics tool can be costly and time-consuming under the best of circumstances, even more so for public sector employees. On top of the usual hassle of selecting, vetting, and integrating new vendors, government agencies must comply with regulations that private businesses don’t. Many of these statues focus on privacy and the control of public government data, leaving government analytics teams trying to thread the needle between the most effective tools for the job and the most compliant.
Rules can also limit the range of tools available. For instance, a federal regulation used to prohibit cookies on U.S. government websites, curtailing the amount of data they were able to collect on users. Even certain browser plugins that help to validate analytics need to be approved to work with government VPNs. Many of these tools are often rejected, meaning that users need to develop their own workarounds and solutions.
Solution: With so many limitations on the kind of tools you can employ to gather data, government agencies are often hamstrung from the start. What’s more, no tool can track everything you need right out of the box. However, even if you can’t leverage the newest TMS, CDP, cloud database or BI tool, that doesn’t mean you can’t get everything you need from approved or extant platforms. A measurement expert can recommend fixes, adjustments, and the right suite of tools to ensure you’re getting everything you need to create world-class insights.
With the right support, your agency can not only deliver on all of its stakeholder needs but also set the standard for compliance with such wide-ranging rules as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which demand higher standards for data collection, consent, and privacy. Empirical Path helped Visit Albuquerque, which sees many European visitors to its The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta content, audit and categorize the many cookie-setting technologies running on the website and customize geo-targeted consent mechanisms in Google Tag Manager for managing the privacy rights of protected user segments.
Founded in 2011, Empirical Path has a long history of lending our digital measurement skills to public sector organizations looking to support, improve, or launch their government analytics capabilities. As a result, we know that public sector teams often face uniquely steep challenges due to the nature of their work and the structure of their organizations. Fortunately, through our work with private businesses — as well as a wide array of public sector groups, including the US Air Force, UCLA, UNC, Central New Mexico Community College, the City of Brookline and Atlanta Downtown Improvement District — we’ve learned some tricks to overcome them.To learn more about how you can maximize the value of government analytics in your organization and overcome major barriers to better measurement, visit our public sector page.
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