State agencies use data to drive policies, help Washingtonians

From developing better health care tools to increasing government efficiency, data helps officials make key decisions

When the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services looks for innovative ways to help vulnerable people, the agency has a powerful ally: its own data scientists who analyze information from its data systems to provide services to people who need them.

Data helps clinicians make decisions about patients with complex medical issues, guides officials in identifying where to target limited resources, and even provides insight to state leaders as they restructure agencies.

“This data helps us understand whether we are improving outcomes for the people we serve, and helps us make improvements to programs,” said David Mancuso, director of the agency’s Research and Data Analysis division.

Beginning in the early 1990s, RDA made Washington among the first of a growing number of states to use data integrated from multiple information technology systems as a strategic asset to help inform policy and better serve clients. As some services shift this year from DSHS to the Health Care Authority and to the Department of Children, Youth and Families, RDA continues to provide analytic support for these essential partners.

In recent years, RDA has used data to:

  • Identify for first responders the location of vulnerable DSHS clients needing evacuation assistance during natural disasters.
  • Measure adverse childhood experiences to demonstrate the impact of childhood adversity and trauma on later life experiences, including educational success and use of high-cost health care services.
  • Develop tools that better enable health care providers to give care to high-need Medicaid patients.
State agencies use data about Washingtonians to improve services and shed light on complex problems. For example, the Washington State Department of Health keeps data on the percentage of Washington residents without health insurance, broken down by county, as well as the percentage of Washington residents who live in poverty, as displayed in this map on its Health Data Visualization page.

Other states are using data-driven decision making as well. Results Washington, part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, recently convened a webinar to connect states and researchers doing this kind of work.

“Our mission is to use data in science to impact policy and improve lives,” said professor Justine Hastings of Brown University, director of the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab. Hastings participated in the webinar with Mancuso.

For example, Hastings said, data scientists in Rhode Island are examining the effectiveness of how the state provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

By focusing on the key statistics of the SNAP program, the lab is able to begin to answer questions about how SNAP benefits correlate to student test scores.

“Now we can ask questions like: ‘How many third graders had a parent receiving unemployment benefits or lost their SNAP benefits in the month before they took a test?’” Hastings said.

Left: Professor Justine Hastings of Brown University, director of the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab. Right: David Mancuso, director of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ Research and Data Analysis division.

The lab is already churning out significant insights. Among other things, its use of data predicts with a high degree of accuracy residents who are at greatest risk of overdose from prescription opioids.

The lab also found that providing SNAP participants two payments each month (rather than one large monthly payment) translates into greater food and financial stability. When people receive one large monthly payment they feel wealthier than they actually are, thus putting them at risk for spending too much too quickly.

Types of data collected in both Washington and Rhode Island include: Medicaid claims, births and deaths, participation in social service programs, a client’s place of employment, and their salary.

“One thing that is critical in doing this work is managing what raw data means in a complex and evolving IT and delivery system environment,” Mancuso said about translating raw data into something people can understand. “We are working to make more accessible how we build client risk factors and outcomes from raw data, so that we can better share that knowledge and make our methods more accessible to our partners.”

This graph, compiled by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Service’s Research and Data Analysis division, shows family risk factors associated with childhood experiences that can have adverse effects later in a child’s life. The study focused on Washington children who receive Medicaid.

Making government more efficient

At Washington agencies, data also uncovers ways to improve government.

The Department of Licensing’s Customer Service Center, for example, uses data on call volume and wait times to adjust its phone staffing throughout each day, discuss the previous day’s performance and decide how to answer calls in a timely manner, even when experiencing staffing shortages. Employees and supervisors use data to make decisions about hours of operation, lunch periods, leave, service standards and individual performance goals.

Doing so has allowed the agency to meet its target of less than four-minute wait times for nearly 90 percent of its 3,000 daily customer calls.

In another case, the Department of Enterprise Services used data to improve the way it collects fees.

DES contracts with companies to provide goods and services to other state agencies, local governments and nonprofit organizations, including translation services, software and office supplies. The agency collects a management fee from the companies on each contract, but using data analysis, employees at DES discovered inconsistencies in the way they collected payments from contract companies. Contract specialists all handled sales reporting differently, and contracts had varying fee amounts and requirements for who should make the payment.

Those inconsistencies contributed to a revenue problem for the agency: 47 percent of the companies were not reporting sales on time, meaning they could not receive their bill. When they did get an invoice, many companies lagged behind in making payments to DES.

In 2015, the agency responded by standardizing the payment and reporting process. This year, 79 percent of contractors and vendors are reporting their sales on time, and the overall late-payment balance to DES has decreased by 80 percent — from $776,000 to $155,000.