Improving data transparency at the US Department of the Interior

A federal executive department, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) is using Tableau to make data more accessible and understandable to internal stakeholders and to the tax-paying public. Fast, easy data insight into multiple data sources and many "aha" moments have convinced Sr. Systems Accountant Adam Crahen that his team is "on the forefront of changing the way we do federal reporting."

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is a federal executive department of the US government. The DOI oversees most of the nation’s federal land, natural resources, and administers programs relating to indigenous peoples of the United States.

To make their data more accessible and useful, the DOI needed the ability to look at data wherever it lives—from HR, finance systems and even other federal departments. But blending the data from varying formats was prohibitively difficult.

Manually-updated Excel scorecards were unengaging and took “forever” to update. Even worse, they were complex and difficult to understand—the summary sheets alone had more than two dozen tabs with various metrics. After adopting Tableau, people are able to quickly identify problems—and see how to address them. The ability to quickly drill down to the invoice level helps stakeholders get to actionable information much faster. They are also able to blend data from flat files, Access databases, and SAP BW, among other sources.

In video 1, Sr. Systems Accountant Adam Crahen talks about how the DOI is using Tableau to improve data insight and "spread the joy" at the DOI. In and video 2, he shares some "aha" moments he has had.

Tableau: How are you using Tableau to make better use of data at the DOI?
Adam Crahen, Senior Systems Accountant: We are the firefighters for the Department of Interior. You know, if my boss comes knocking, there's a fire and we need to respond quickly, so to speak. So Tableau really frees us up. We're able to pinpoint problems immediately and move onto the next challenge.

Tableau: Why is financial transparency important to the US Department of the Interior (DOI)?
Adam: Financial transparency is important not just for DOI, but for the whole government. It means something to every person, and you should be able to know where your money's spent and what it's being spent on, you know, who received it, and all things like that.

Tableau: This the goal of the 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA), right?
Adam: The DATA Act is going to improve that. But I think things like Tableau are vital—we can just drill through our information. We can visualize it.

Tableau: Can you talk about what kind of visual analytics you're creating?
Adam: In the government, things are obviously complex, and so I use it more as discovery analytics right now. So I like to build macro-level reports, one report that can serve anybody. And that's kind of my goal. I don't want 100 people building the same report. I want one person building a report for those 100 people.

I think we're on the forefront of changing the way we do federal reporting, and I'm really excited to kind of get the word out and spread the joy.

Clearing audit deficiencies in a year

Tableau: Who is using the reports your team creates?
Adam: The consumers for our reports vary a lot. It depends. I'm an accountant. We do a lot of financial. So our financial community varies from bureau CFOs down to the actual accountants and analysts that fix the problems.

Tableau: Can you talk about some of the challenges with data insight that you’ve been able to overcome with Tableau?
Adam: Some of the reporting challenges we've had are with our audit. We're always trying to improve and proactively find actionable information.

We had these scorecards—they were red, yellow and green. And they took forever to pull the data into Excel. Even the summary sheet had 25 tabs on it with different data.

Now, they're all in Tableau and they're beautiful. And they not only give people a score, but they direct people where they can go to fix the problem. And so you can actually go from your Bureau total to a customer total, and down to an invoice.

So people are getting that actionable information much quicker. They're looking for it and it's presented in a much better fashion that they're able to use.

And, you know, we're really driving adoption through reports like that. Those “aha” moments are really what drives the adoption. Like I said, we'll visualize anything. And people, not only do they like when they see their data, but they get ideas. And that's really what we're trying to do with it. You know, I feel I've been as creative as I ever was before.

Tableau: That’s fantastic! Can you tell us a little about a success story you’ve had with Tableau?
Adam: So some of our metrics are multiple data sources blended together, which is a beautiful thing, because not all data is pretty.

One particular area that really helped us recently was in our grants monitoring. And so that's when we give money out to people, they're required to get an audit and submit an audit. And if they didn't submit an audit, that's a big problem for our financial audit.

So we actually merge our data with the Federal Audit Clearing House data, and within one year, we were able to drop a significant deficiency. And so if you're not familiar with that, that's bad for your audit. We dropped it within one year, visualizing it in Tableau.

Tableau: Can you share what sort of data sources you’re connecting to in Tableau?
Adam: We have an SAP business warehouse, and we're looking at HANA in the future. So currently we use Business Objects to extract data from the system. We do have a lot of data in flat files and Excel and Access, and things like that. We do also use data from other agencies, like Census and that. Our data is vast and comes from all over.

We have a wide variety of data sources at Interior. We have a SAP financial business system. We also get data from HR systems. We get data from the Federal Audit Clearing House spreadsheets, you know. Whoever has it, you know, we'll visit.

Tableau: One last question—has your job changed since you started with Tableau?
Adam: My job has completely changed since I started using Tableau. I use it every day. I feel empowered to analyze the data and to come to conclusions, and just make people's days better, make their lives easier. So my job is completely different since Tableau. It's just great.

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