Data, Empathy, and Leadership for Better Public Health Outcomes

Peter Krombach is the director of data operations for the Indiana State Department of Health (IDOH), and he truly embodies what it means to be a data-driven leader. I’ve been wanting to have him as a guest on Data Driven Leadership pretty much since I started hosting it.

I got to work with Peter on a project for IDOH when COVID first hit. Peter knows that data itself isn’t innately valuable. Understanding it and knowing how to leverage it are what make that data have real-world impact. Would you listen to the weather report and then not take it into account when you are preparing to leave and run your errands? That’s the difference between having data and having a data asset.

Risks and innovation in the public sector

In our conversation, Peter and I talked about the extra concerns leaders face in the public sector. In a private business, there are certainly risks. But in a public company, the potential impact is substantially more broad. Further still for the public sector. Public sector risks are different. The expectation of public sector is good government. Citizens have the expectation that they can entrust their data to government entities; that their taxes will be used on important, impactful programs; and that their data may be used to help determine the efficacy of those programs. You can imagine that just one data breach, one program with a hole wide enough that a group of individuals falls through it, or one program proven to be ineffective can be enough to lose the trust of the public. And trust doesn’t grow on trees. This risk can create substantial fear in well-intended government leaders. If leaders let fear dictate all their actions, how can we actuate innovation?

Peter knows first-hand that the fear part is about just not wanting negative feedback to come back onto the agency. But when a public sector agency embraces healthy risks and changes in the name of better serving constituents, that’s when breakthroughs happen.

On building data culture in public sector organizations

One of the things that stood out the most to me is Peter’s emphasis on ensuring data initiatives don’t leave anyone behind.

Often when working on an initiative, we think about our core team or end-user but can miss taking into account adjacent people who are critical for adoption or leverage on that project. Peter is excellent at thinking about casting the widest net for the best outcomes. He’s naturally team-oriented and extremely self-aware. If you’re familiar with Patrick Lencioni’s Working Genius, I imagine Peter is Galvanizing, as he can rally a group around a data initiative with ease.

He shares that the antidote to fear is building trust and confidence among teams. The easiest way to do this is to motivate a team to ensure they are working toward a shared mission.

That shared mission was noticeably clear at IDOH during the pandemic, when clearing roadblocks to facilitate trustworthy data was about life and death. We had to address data challenges faster and more effectively than ever before, and that required a healthy respect for potential risks as we stayed committed to our shared mission. We found new creative ways to hurdle the roadblocks, which also required space for missteps or failures. Since then, IDOH has kept moving forward with modernizations.

Peter said, “That’s something that the pandemic taught us: Yes, we know these roadblocks exist. Let’s not try to go back to our old ways just because we’re not in an emergency anymore.”

More than numbers: balancing tech and touch

Peter stresses that a savvy leader must understand the “what” of data and the “why” behind it so that every initiative speaks to the very real needs and aspirations of the people it serves.

He also delineates the shift from viewing data as discrete projects to sustainable and purpose-driven products. He unpacks the challenges of traceability and the deliberate shift towards proactive population health measures woven into the very fabric of IDOH’s approach. This is where data transcends its static form and becomes dynamic in shaping real-world outcomes.

Tune into the full episode to absorb not just the tactical insights from Peter’s journey but also to feel the palpable passion of a leader who lives by the numbers while leading with the heart.

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