How Virginia’s State Leaders Are Using Data to Restore Public Trust in Government


How Virginia’s State Leaders Are Using Data to Restore Public Trust in Government

Public trust in government is approaching record lows: In 2020, according to Pew Research, only 20% of Americans said they trusted government institutions. As state governments take on the unprecedented task of vaccinating millions of constituents, rebuilding trust in government is mission critical – and data might be the key to doing so. The Commonwealth of Virginia has both recognized this and invested in this important goal.

In the latest webinar in our Virginia Data Revolution Seminar Series, our experts reveal how the state is using data transparency and data sharing to grow/restore public trust in government and government services, notably around pandemic recovery efforts.

Data sharing puts food on tables amid a pandemic

Diane Pabich, Associate Director of Operations with the Division of Benefit Programs within Virginia Department of Social Services, explained one such outcome. Pabich discussed how data sharing enabled social services to put food on the table for students during pandemic school closures.

During the 2019 and 2020 school years, nearly 600,000 students were eligible for free or reduced lunch – that’s approximately 45% of all children in Virginia schools. While federal policy ensured that families would continue to receive supplemental nutrition assistance even as schools closed, it also created an allowance for higher income populations to receive subsidized meals.

The allowance, known as the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, posed a logistical challenge for Pabich’s team. To ensure no child went hungry, they needed to identify families who may qualify for P-EBT who previously weren’t eligible for the school lunch program. However, this information was not readily available from a single source.

To determine student eligibility, the division worked to access and transfer data from a variety of disparate sources including the Commonwealth’s Temporary Cash Assistance for Families with Minor Children (TANF) program, Medicaid, and foster care programs.

Of course, data is only useful if it’s high quality. “When data is unreliable, program recipients and other organizations that depend on that data for decision-making quickly lose faith in the state,” said Pabich. “Dirty data” can also delay the delivery of much-needed aid. Studies show that workers can waste up to 50% of their time hunting for data and identifying and correcting errors.

To ensure meal subsidies got into the right hands and quickly, Pabich’s team worked collaboratively with each agency to validate the accuracy of the data shared. “Accurate data accelerated our ability to deliver food services to the children, families, and communities of Virginia will continue to improve. Which in turn has had a positive impact on perceptions of our agency.”

Data sharing enables a paradigm shift in citizen engagement

Pabich also discussed how data sharing increases transparency and encourages constituent engagement while further building trust in government services. A successful example of this is the Department of Social Services’ unified workforce portal – Virginia Career Works.

In the face of unprecedented pandemic-driven unemployment, the online platform launched in July 2020 to match job seekers with openings and programs that assist in career advancement. The portal collects data from numerous agencies including education, social services, and employment – all with different secretaries – who worked together to fast-track the program’s launch.

Carlos Rivero, Chief Data Officer of the Commonwealth of Virginia, reiterated the impact that data sharing projects, like Virginia Career Works, are having on the delivery of state services: “Instead of a constituent coming to an agency and asking for services, we’re giving them a menu of available options that guide them to the services they need, including training and certifications, assistance with transportation and childcare, and referral generation – and this helps build public trust.”

Data sharing drives efficient distribution of PPE

In the wake of the pandemic, data also helped address another urgent issue – shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) among EMS teams.

Although the federal and state government intervened to provide PPE to healthcare providers, quantities were finite, and the Commonwealth needed a way to ensure it was distributed to EMS workers where it was needed most. One way to do this was to come up with a “burn calculation” to ascertain how much PPE was being used each day. But with 660 EMS agencies and 36,000 EMS providers in Virginia, arriving at that calculation was easier said than done.

“In hospitals and controlled settings, teams can look at materials management or their supply chains to determine exactly how much PPE they use. EMS just doesn’t work that way,” explained Adam L. Harrell, MBA, NRP, Associate Director of Virginia’s Office of Emergency Medical Services. Instead, Harrell’s team had to think outside the box.

The team developed a PPE Distribution Dashboard that visualizes demand for PPE based on the number of 9-1-1 calls received and where those calls originate. Using these insights, they could then determine how much PPE was needed – and where – based on average trends across hundreds and thousands of EMS providers. To ensure everyone was working off the same page, the dashboard was shared with every EMS provider, agency, and partner as well as across the supply chain.

“Anytime we develop a public-facing dashboard, we make sure that we have constituents involved in the process and that we’re not just telling them what we think they need to make informed decisions, we’re also assisting, and that helps build trust in our services,” said Harrell.

A Data Governance Framework is a Catalyst for Data Sharing

Data sharing doesn’t happen naturally, and many agencies may be reticent about sharing the data they collect and “own” with other stakeholders.

To alleviate this mistrust, the Rivero and his team established a data trust member agreement with each agency that sets out protocols for security, data storage, data sharing, and access rights. Key to that agreement is a data governance framework.

A formal data governance framework brings together different IT and business stakeholders to define the rules that govern data management. “We’re the catalyst or broker that facilitates data sharing and data quality throughout the Commonwealth, and a data governance framework is incredibly important to that,” said Marcus Thornton, Virginia’s Deputy Chief Data Officer. “It encourages agencies to join Virginia’s data trust and share their information openly knowing that there is oversight in place.”

Read more about overcoming obstacles to cross-agency data sharing.

If you have ideas or suggestions for future Virginia Data Revolution events or would like to be added to the invite list, please email  and we’ll be in touch.