Notes from an Internship: Part IV

A few months ago, I read a book that dealt with the tension between evidence-based decision making and the subjectivity inherent to human judgment. Throughout it, the author illustrates the sharp contrast between the widely felt pressure to let data and statistics drive action and the moral imperative to view people as nuanced individuals who cannot be described by a set of numbers.

What struck me most about the book, though, was that it wasn’t written by an admired leader of the Information Age. It was penned more than 150 years ago by Charles Dickens, and titled, appropriately, Hard Times. It would appear that times haven’t gotten any easier, and that delicate balance between facts and intuition is no easier to find. This week, I attended the Arizona City/County Management Association’s summer conference in Marana, and, surprisingly, found myself again thinking about Dickens, statistics and what the Victorians called “the Human Condition.”

Thursday afternoon, I settled in for a session on everyone’s favorite buzzphrase, big data. As I learned of creative ways to share analytics about water use and methods for implementing a performance management system, I started thinking about how best to employ concrete measures, and how their usage will affect behaviors. Metrics exert a powerful influence on how people act, since if we know we’ll be evaluated with certain parameters, very quickly we’ll gravitate toward maximizing our performance in those areas, often to the exclusion of other activities.

Sometimes, using a few measurements can be incredibly effective, especially in highly technical fields where outcomes are discrete and highly evident. At the Town of Marana, though, in rotating through every department, I haven’t met a single person whose job could be quantified by a rigid set of metrics. How can you objectively capture whether someone works collaboratively? What statistic accurately reflects employees’ respect for each other? The most effective users of our wealth of information recognize its limitations, and strive to reconcile the facts we know with the impressions we believe.

Great thoughts for a philosophy class, but what does all this have to do with my intern responsibilities? I’m glad you asked! Since my first week with the Town, I’ve been working on a project to connect local business owners with mentors who can provide guidance in their areas of expertise. I could conduct a literature review to learn the different ways these programs work elsewhere, and design a program reflecting that data.

While that information should certainly factor into what we set up, I also need to consider the local context. The relationships in Marana will figure tremendously into the success of this initiative, but I can’t plug them into a spreadsheet. Big data doesn’t convey trust, kindness or generosity, all critical ingredients in this project. Effective decision making relies on analytics and intuition, and learning that balance will come only with experience.

This internship is helping me accrue those experiences, in a sense providing me with bigger data, and therefore preparing me to navigate these issues in the future.

Chris Saunders is a Marvin Andrews Scholar who is interning with the Town this summer. He is writing weekly entries for Marana 365 through the end of August.