The Moneyball Effect: How Could Data Improve Governance?

Whether you are a fan of baseball or not, there are lessons to be learned from the concept of “Moneyball.”* The term was coined to describe what Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, did to take his team, which had the second smallest budget in Major League Baseball, to the playoffs seven times in the last 15 years.  He conducted data analysis of player statistics to make smart trades, purchases, and develop winning game day line-ups.  Beane used statistics identified by Bill James that enabled him to measure which combination of players and strategies had a higher likelihood of success, as opposed to the old tools used by managers to identify individual potential super stars. Beane and James found that traditional baseball statistics such as RBIs (runs batted in) were meaningless predictors of success. Beane knew he needed to understand what made a winning team, and by extension a profitable one, and not just a strong individual player. He knew that the A’s needed the perfect combination of players with different skills to win.

Billy Bean

In general terms, Moneyball is the analytical, evidence-based approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite a small budget. This same concept has now been applied to a range of other sports around the world such as soccer.  What has been revolutionary about Bean’s approach is that he created a new way of planning trades and strategy based on concrete analytical information, and shifted an entire industry away from relying heavily on gut instinct and a limited set of statistics.

What could a Moneyball approach mean for improving governance?  If governments opened up a new conversation about data like Bill James did, and provided access to data to reformers like Billy Beane, we could see the creation of alternative statistics that would allow institutions (CSOs, governmental agencies, businesses) to use data in new ways to improve services, tackle challenges like corruption, and understand where they stand on reaching development goals.

Running a successful sports team has a lot in common with governing.  One measure of a winning government is that it successfully aligns leadership, resources, services, structures and systems to provide for the needs of the greatest number of citizens.  This set of measures cannot come at the expense of human rights including minority rights, which is another way a government is measured.  With the current movement towards open data and open government, and the widespread availability of sophisticated analytical tools, how many government leaders know how to play Moneyball?  If they played Moneyball they could:

  • Better understand what reforms are most and least effective
  • Improve transparency and encourage greater engagement with citizens
  • Move closer to meeting development goals
  • Improve services for citizens
  • Catalyze the development of a data economy

In her recent TED talk, Anne Milgram, the former Attorney General of New Jersey (The Moneyball Effect: How Smart Data is Transforming Criminal Justice, Healthcare, Music, and Even Government Spending) thinks we need more leaders playing Moneyball. According to Milgram, government can improve services for citizens by collecting and using data and information for decision making.  Data analysis can help us better understand where to focus services, learn more about the services which are failing to reach citizens, and improve lives.  Her thoughts are echoed in a 2013 Atlantic article, “Can Government Play Moneyball?” – however, I would add to the analysis of this article that when it comes to evaluation – we have to get much better at defining “success” before we start measuring it.

A second benefit to playing Governance Moneyball is the development of data economies.  A data economy is created when two things happen: businesses are built which use tools and data to create new services for customers, and existing businesses use data to improve existing products or build new ones. A recent survey found that very few countries are unlocking the potential of data to spur the development of the economy.  Just two African countries – Kenya and Ghana – made the list, and they are categorized as “followers.”  The key difference between followers and trendsetters was user engagement with the data – how many citizens can download, analyze, and interact with the data sets posted by government entities.  While data is still often thought of as the domain of large tech companies such as Google and Facebook, more and more companies and soon governments will be thinking about questions raised in a Tech Crunch article from 2012.  They will need to understand:

  • What is the value of data inside government?
  • What is the risk in sharing it?
  • What control can be exercised over the data?
  • What can government get in exchange for it?
  • What role should government play in data markets?



Playing Governance Moneyball would not be without its challenges.  There are at least three challenges to applying the Moneyball Effect to governance:

Asking the Right Questions: The Moneyball effect in sports may not be easy to apply to other sectors because the success indicators are not nearly as well defined.  In baseball, success is measured in dollar terms – how much money does the franchise make in a season?  How much money they make is increased by the number of wins and playoff appearances.  What is the indicator of success in government?  What quantitative measures tell us which justice, security, anti-corruption institutions are performing best? Partners for Democratic Change is convinced that if government, civil society and business can together formulate the right questions and apply data analysis to entrenched issues, they can unearth new and possibly revolutionary ideas.

Closing the Feedback Loop:  A second challenge is closing the feedback loop between citizens and government.  A criticism of platforms such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is that they create expectations of citizens that change will happen if they participate and make their voices heard.  But governments don’t always listen.  They may willingly share data and information, and even open channels to solicit citizen feedback, but this does do not necessarily lead to concrete changes in policies, plans, activities or services based on that feedback.  This can lead to disappointment and frustration amongst citizens, which can eventually turn into apathy or even revolution.

Creating the Necessary Ecosystem:  In countries which lack infrastructure, a skilled workforce, and access to international markets, a final challenge is accessing the global data economy.  Countries risk being left behind because their markets are too small, their governments not open enough, and their citizens lack the skills and resources to mobilize around data that is provided.  However, this challenge can be overcome by applying a systems approach to analyzing the potential benefits of improving access to data within the local market, identifying and removing the barriers to collecting and using that data, and building better connections to the global economy.  Large countries such as Nigeria and small ones such as Kosovo are proving this can be done.

Civic Data for Transparency

Partners and our colleagues in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are experimenting with the use of data for improved accountability and governance of the justice and security sectors.  For the last several months, teams in both countries have been partnering with government institutions including the Anti-Corruption Commission in Sierra Leone and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC) in Nigeria to provide better access to data about corruption cases and their operations.  They have been collecting data on everything from the status of court cases to the numbers of Freedom of Information Act requests honored.  Over the next two months, teams of government leaders, civil society experts, graphic designers and developers are working with the data they have collected at a series of Civic Code-athon events leading to the development of tools and infographics which will help improve citizens’ understanding of corruption issues in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and aid government officials in their work.

For example, the infographic below is the work of our Civic Codeathon partner organization in Nigeria, BudgIT.  It breaks down the proposed Nigerian budget in 2013, making the fiscal information more accessible so that Nigerian citizens can be better informed on how their government allocates money.

2013 Nigeria Budget


* For more on Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s, read Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, or see the movie of the same name starring Brad Pitt.

This article was initially published on Partners4DC website.

About Teresa Crawford

Teresa has over 13 years of experience working with civil society organizations to help them make better use of information and information technology in their work. She has worked in over 30 countries on issues as diverse as eradicating violence against women in war, disability rights and minority civic participation. From 2006 to 2009 she was the Director of the Advocacy and Leadership Center at the Institute for Sustainable Communities and built a robust training and capacity building program for CSOs with a focus on collaborative advocacy and transformational leadership. An experienced trainer, manager and researcher, Teresa is also the co-founder of IPKO, the first post-war Internet service provider in Kosovo. IPKO is now a multimillion dollar company and Teresa is on the board of IPKO Foundation, the first endowed local foundation in the region. Teresa has a degree in politics and peace & justice studies from the University of San Francisco and a Master’s degree in nonprofit management and policy from NYU.

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