In Depth Reports

Published on December 10th, 2015 | by Daniel Castro


States Should Kill the Annual Report, Here’s Why

This article originally appeared in Government Technology

Such relics of a paper-based world are no longer the best option for an increasingly digital government.

Government websites are drowning in annual reports. Almost every agency, no matter its size, publishes a yearly report about its activities. These documents supplement the annual reports of specific government programs within agencies. To take just one example, a search for “annual report” across all of New York state’s websites produces approximately 36,000 results, including around 8,000 PDFs, covering everything from the State Liquor Authority to the Division of Forest Protection. While these reports are a useful tool for providing insight and accountability on public-sector operations, such relics of a paper-based world are no longer the best option for an increasingly digital government. Instead, agencies should begin replacing annual reports with dynamic dashboards that provide real-time information on government programs.

One of the main problems with annual reports is that, by definition, they are only published once per year, so the information they provide is not timely and only captures the state of government programs at a single moment in time. Therefore, when it comes to management and oversight, they are a relatively poor tool. It’s much more useful for legislators to learn about a program that is over budget and underperforming one month into the project rather than at 12 months. Receiving information sooner can ensure programs stay on track for success and ultimately save taxpayers money.

The private sector is already moving away from the idea that once-a-year reporting is a useful management strategy. In recent years, a number of major companies, such asAccenture, Deloitte, GE and Microsoft, have announced that they are ditching employee annual performance reviews in favor of more frequent feedback between employees and managers. Moreover, the rise of the Internet of Things and wearable tech is creating a new culture that thrives on instant feedback — the success of companies like Fitbit comes from telling people how many calories they have burned each day, not at the end of the year.

Dashboards offer an alternative to annual reports because they provide users access to the most recent information on government programs and allow them to explore and analyze the data available. For example, the federal government used dashboards to provide the public transparency on federal spending that took place as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as the distribution of federal funds following Hurricane Sandy. Many of the most prominent examples of dashboards in state government today are still works in progress. For example, the Texas Education Agency established the Texas School Accountability Dashboard to provide the public access to state, district and school performance data, but the information is only updated annually.

At their best, dashboards are not just tools for publicly reporting some data, but rather internal performance management tools that the government makes public. The Washington State Transportation Improvement Board developed its performance management dashboardafter realizing that oversight had been so poor that the agency had awarded grants for more projects than it could fund. The dashboard, now in its fourth version since its 2003 launch, tracks and measures the board’s performance, such as delays in projects and payments, providing the public the same level of detail available to agency staff.

State CIOs can provide the technical building blocks for agencies to implement dashboards. For example, the UK has launched more than 800 dashboards to showcase how well government services are performing by creating a well-documented process that explains to agencies how to both measure performance and publish the data. Indeed, a side effect of building dashboards is that it forces agencies to think more about how they measure performance. CIOs can also provide guidance on best practices for data visualizations so that dashboards present information in the most user-friendly way possible.

Eliminating annual reports will not happen overnight. Some are mandated by law, and replacing them with dashboards may require legislative action. But a good start would be a simple dashboard showing the number of annual reports published by the government. Hopefully this figure will soon be trending downward.

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About the Author

Daniel Castro is the director of the Center for Data Innovation and vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Mr. Castro writes and speaks on a variety of issues related to information technology and internet policy, including data, privacy, security, intellectual property, internet governance, e-government, and accessibility for people with disabilities. His work has been quoted and cited in numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, USA Today, Bloomberg News, and Businessweek. In 2013, Mr. Castro was named to FedScoop’s list of “Top 25 most influential people under 40 in government and tech.” In 2015, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker appointed Mr. Castro to the Commerce Data Advisory Council.Mr. Castro previously worked as an IT analyst at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) where he audited IT security and management controls at various government agencies. He contributed to GAO reports on the state of information security at a variety of federal agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). In addition, Mr. Castro was a Visiting Scientist at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he developed virtual training simulations to provide clients with hands-on training of the latest information security tools. He has a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an M.S. in Information Security Technology and Management from Carnegie Mellon University.

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