Data dashboards – interfaces which display complex data to a user, often displayed in real time, and typically drawn from multiple sources – are an increasingly important way in which government departments make decisions. Hundreds of them are used across government every day, from city planning to strategic spending decisions.

According to their advocates, dashboards promise a smooth, data driven decision making environment: cutting costs, providing new insight into citizens’ concerns, and allowing for smarter policy and operational choices.

However, dashboards signal a potentially very significant shift in the way government operates. While the opportunities are considerable, dashboard use in government does present several challenges. They introduce new skills, dynamics, pressures, opportunities and challenges into the practice of governance. Data presented on a dashboard is rarely as straightforward as it appears. Dashboards condense data for easy digestion, which can obscure a user’s knowledge of how trustworthy or accurate that data is.

By presenting often very complex, messy and varied data in simplified forms for consumption via a dashboard, sometimes subtle changes take place in how that data is understood. Most notably, by introducing a new emphasis on metrics, indicators and measures, it can create a greater focus on operational issues rather than longer-term strategic ones. And as with any new discipline, new types of expertise become valued, and new sources of authority become established.

This paper presents three principles that should shape any government use of data dashboards:

  1. Identify purpose and use: Dashboards are a generic response to collect, analyse and act on large data sets. In and of themselves, they are not necessarily the best way to understand all problems, and must be carefully designed to match real organisational needs. Once the purpose has been identified, it must be communicated clearly to its designers as well as its intended users.
  2. Understand limitations: Dashboards have the potential to mislead as well as inform. By their nature, dashboards leave out more than they include: usually with the user not knowing how the data presented was created. Users can be blinded by large numbers or have insufficient understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the data they are using. Dashboards will often prioritise operational issues, rather than longer-term strategic issues, and may marginalise more reflexive approaches to a problem. Like all metrics they can be “gamed”, and so users must be encouraged to have a critical eye for the dashboard’s limits.
  1. Select the right staff and skills: Just because they are designed to be user-friendly, it is dangerous to assume users will intuitively understand how to use them. To maximise the take-up rate among staff, they will need to be provided with training to understand the dashboard’s purpose, where the data is drawn from and the way that it is framed. The skills to create and manage dashboards are extremely valuable and sought after in the private and public sectors. A whole new generation of analysts will need to be trained, with a new combination of skill sets, ranging from data analytics, design, social science and public policy.