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Just the Facts, Ma’am…

The catchphrase “Just the facts, Ma’am,” often attributed to Dragnet’s Joe Friday, came to mind when I recently heard Steve Balmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, describe an initiative he started called USAFacts.


Their website describes the principles of this project as follows:


“USAFacts is a new data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances, and government’s impact on society. We are a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative and have no political agenda or commercial motive. We provide this information as a free public service and are committed to maintaining and expanding it in the future.”


Imagine, as a starting point, we could begin to agree on a set of facts—irrefutable data—that allowed us to have the national dialogue that most of us crave: passionate in spirit, civil in tone, and noble in motive.


USAFacts has a tagline: “Our nation, in numbers.”


Numbers are neutral and when compiled provide context and a foundation for debate and decision-making.


We all run our lives based on numbers, don’t we? Our bank balance determines our spending patterns. Our investment results influence our economic peace of mind. The numbers on our scales tell us something. The nutritional numbers on our food packaging or the street numbers of our homes as well as phone numbers, ages, and dates are numbers that impact us in our everyday lives. At work almost everything is about numbers—profits, Net Promoter Scores, salary increases, market share, and so on. What part of your life isn’t described by a number?


We mostly accept these numbers as facts. Why not run our country that way? Why not run our associations and our events that way? We could focus on data-driven decisions to drive in new directions, instead of being tangled up in turf battles and sacred cows.


We may not like the numbers, and we will certainly disagree on our interpretation of what they mean and how to change them. But won’t it be great when we all have access to and come to use these numbers as a starting point for the debate.


My hat’s off to Steve Balmer. Check out USAFacts.org. The numbers may set us free.