Elected Leaders Need Operations Research and Analytics to Deliver Better Results from Enhanced Data Availability

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With midterm elections behind us and the 116th United States Congress ahead of us, Washington has a unique opportunity to advance operations research (O.R.) and analytics as a priority to enhance how the federal government implements public policies, makes critical decisions, and conducts its day-to-day operations. What could be more important for our elected leaders than using the best data and insights to make a positive difference for the American people and to strengthen our position vis a vis our nation’s allies and enemies?

In an era where we have vast amounts of data readily available, the challenge for government is not to access that information, but rather to understand what the data is revealing and how best to act on it. Misunderstanding or misapplying data has serious repercussions. It is imperative that government decision-makers at all levels have the advanced scientific tools necessary to make the right decisions using the right data.

One of the best proven ways to do this is through the use of O.R. and analytics. O.R. and analytics are the application of advanced mathematical tools that enable organizations to turn complex challenges into substantial opportunities. These powerful tools do not merely evaluate existing solutions to problems. More usefully, they relentlessly seek solutions that provide the best possible outcome, and thereby deliver prescriptive value to decision-makers. They do so by structuring data into solutions and insights for making better decisions which offer improved results.

In summary, O.R. and analytics offer policymakers proven scientific and mathematical processes that save lives, save money and solve problems. Some recent examples include:

  • Lieutenant Colonel Christopher E. Marks of the U.S. Army and colleagues, Tauhid Zaman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University, found a way to identify extremists—such as those associated with the terrorist group, ISIS—by monitoring their social media accounts and identifying them even before they post threatening content;
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eradicated the last pockets of the Wild Polio virus around the world;
  • The Federal Communications Commission completed the world’s first two-sided auction of valuable low-band electromagnetic spectrum, contributing more than $7 billion to reduce the federal deficit; and
  • The Federal Aviation Administration deployed the Airspace Flow Program to improve air traffic management and reduce flight delays, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) created the PreCheck passenger screening program—a risk-based aviation security policy that affects more than one million passengers in the U.S. every day—enabling low risk passengers to utilize expedited airport security screening, saving the federal government one-third of a billion dollars every year.

The power of O.R. and analytics also extends to state and local governments, including:

  • The City of Philadelphia redesigned districts for its council members based upon the 2010 census to increase public engagement and minimizing gerrymandering;
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections transformed the complex process of assigning inmates to one of the Pennsylvania Department of Correction’s 25 facilities, reducing a week of seven employees’ time to less than 10 minutes; and
  • The New York City Police Department created the Domain Awareness System, a robust network of sensors, databases, devices, software and infrastructure that informs a variety of tactical and strategic decisions which officers make every day, saving at least $50 million per year.

Despite these outstanding achievements, more can and must be done to expand the use of O.R. and analytics at all levels of government. As a university professor and an operations research professional who has spent his entire career working to improve and expand this field, I am certain that expanding the use of O.R. and analytics would make significant contributions to solving our nation’s problems.

There is broad, bipartisan agreement that various federal government programs and missions continue to operate under antiquated methods, accrue excessive costs and perform inefficiently. I propose O.R. and analytics as an original, powerful and proven approach to fix these problems. The correct application of O.R. and analytic principles to compelling public policy issues will provide robust insights that inform sound, reasonable and bipartisan policy making and program implementation.

Applying these practices to a wide swath of policy areas—such as predicting future outbreaks and pandemics, influencing the design and construction of tomorrow’s communities, building new, cutting-edge transportation and power generation systems, and preventing gun violence through advanced social media monitoring and interventions—will fundamentally improve the government’s fulfillment of its public service mission.

For seven decades, O.R. and analytics have delivered proven and profound value in the private sector with documented savings amounting to many billions of dollars. Now, it is time for O.R. and analytics to become the driver of a higher level of efficiency in Washington, DC.

About the Author

Nicholas G. Hall was the 2018 president of INFORMS. With 12,500 members from nearly 90 countries, INFORMS is the largest international association of operations research and analytics professionals. He is also the Fisher College of Business Distinguished Professor at The Ohio State University. He holds a Ph.D. (Management Science, University of California, Berkeley, 1986), and B.A., M.A. (Economics, University of Cambridge). His research and teaching interests include project management, scheduling and pricing. He has published 82 articles in Operations Research, Management Science, Mathematics of Operations Research, Mathematical Programming, Games and Economic Behavior, Interfaces and other journals. He has served as Associate Editor of Operations Research (1991–) and Management Science (1993–2008). His 335 presentations include 11 keynote addresses, 8 INFORMS tutorials and 98 invited talks in 23 countries.


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