Five tips to sustain and build on improvements in local government data-led decision making

In early February, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) published a report examining Local Government Use of Data During the Pandemic. Its findings are based largely on a roundtable event with several local authorities and Offices of Data and Analytics.

In a nutshell, feedback from local authorities on their use of data and hopes for the future can be summarised as follows:

There have been two main changes in the way data is being used to make decisions since the onset of the pandemic.

  • First, data is being more easily shared (in no small part thanks to emergency powers granted to enable sharing between health and local government); although, notably, this is at a local level with other public service providers, and not so much with central government.
  • Secondly, data is being used within councils in more innovative ways. These findings mirror our own conversations with data leaders at councils across the country. Rarely have they found themselves and their teams so intrinsically embedded in strategic and operational decision making, and rarer still are the accolades now flowing their way for the work they are delivering to improve outcomes for citizens.

So far so good. However, as attention turns to the future, the report describes an apprehensive state among data leaders and practitioners in local government. Shorn of a pandemic-based premise to share and innovate, the prevailing concern appears to be that the focus on data as a strategic asset for decision-making will drop back off to pre-pandemic levels, and those seeking to innovate with data will have to resume their place at the back of the queue for funding and sponsorship.

As the spectre of a post-COVID recovery marked by further tightening of budgets and no visible downturn in demand for services (in many cases, quite the opposite), looms into sight, an all-too-familiar scenario beckons: one where, instead of being rewarded for the role they have played in providing the insight necessary to cope with the pandemic, data teams continue to see underinvestment and are forced to rescind their seat at the top table in favour of more pressing concerns.

Our view, here at the Agilisys Data and Insights Practice, is clear. Such a scenario would squander a once in a generation opportunity to cement the foundations for future service delivery models that truly have data and insight at their heart.

So, we got our heads together to distil our thinking into five low-cost, high-impact steps you can take now to safeguard the progress you’ve made and set a course for even greater impact in the coming weeks, months and years.

1. Put data and insight on the same footing as your other strategic assets

The number one reason we have heard for improvements in the levels of sharing and innovation with data has been the desire of those with decision-making responsibilities to “see what the data says”. As “response cells” sprung up around the country, they created the hungriest of customers for the products and services data teams can provide. This momentum doesn’t have to dissipate in tandem with a (hopefully) waning pandemic. Local government and its partners must act now to ensure that the instinct to consult the data continues far beyond the response to COVID-19.

Tip 1: Create the mechanisms to cement new ways of working within BAU corporate governance. We are currently working with a local authority who are planning to afford their data and insights team the same footing as the legal, HR and finance teams within the corporate approvals process for strategic decisions. This might be seen as a little more stick than carrot, but this is short-sighted. Consulting your insights team will ultimately lead to evidence-based, better-quality decisions and therefore better outcomes for citizens – it’s a no regrets move as far as we can see.

2. Ask your Information Governance folk to help you enable longer term sharing once the emergency powers have subsided

IG teams have suffered over the years from a reputation as naysayers, the people who chase after you in the (now virtual) corridor asking if you’ve completed your DPIA. On the contrary, though, every IG professional we have ever worked with wants to enable safe, lawful and proportionate sharing. What they need is the platform and sponsorship to engage early and to be tasked with guiding project teams towards the outcome they want to achieve.

Tip 2: Ask your Information Governance teams to come up with ways of maintaining enhanced sharing. There are literally hundreds of pieces of legislation that provide lawful bases for sharing data across public sector agencies. Sponsor the IG team’s engagement with your legal team, but also with counterparts at other organisations (many areas have excellent working relationships via multi-agency IG forums). In a more structural sense, IG teams need to be elevated in profile and tasked with developing solutions that facilitate lawful and ethical sharing for good, rather than simply acting as passive gatekeepers. Given this platform, you will be astounded at how what would have been “no” become “yes” or, at least, “let us have a look into it”!

3. Become salespeople and get good at talking about value

When resources are constrained, the case for more hands on the front line has been presented more vociferously than boosting skills and capacity within data and insight teams. This is changing, though. The narrative around treating data as a strategic organisational asset has firmly taken root. This global trend, coupled with the step change in profile we have seen for data as a tool in fighting the pandemic, means the time is very much now for data leaders in local government to start talking about the value they deliver – and beginning to prove it.

Tip 3: Develop a framework for how you capture and communicate the value you are delivering through your work. Don’t be afraid to put pound and pence values on the work you deliver and the interventions you inform. Our upcoming blog looking at ways and means of valuing public sector data will go into more detail, but suffice to say there is a growing body of literature looking at how to measure the value of data and the uses to which it is put.

The most powerful messages are those that tell a story about value, with the data to back it up. In a post-pandemic world, you will need to be more on point than ever in pitching for the investment you need to develop your capabilities. Don’t wait: start crafting yours now.

4. Harness the potential in your people

A lack of time and capacity to innovate is another concern highlighted in the CEDI report. Our own team knows what that feels like, with some of our people having worked in intelligence and performance teams at quite a few local and regional authorities. It can be difficult to fathom where the bandwidth will come from when standard reporting, servicing ad hoc requests and of course, preparing statutory returns are the mainstay of the team’s work programme.

That said, one commonality that has always struck us when working in local government and that is the sheer scale and scope of what we might think of as “latent talent”. This, coupled with the willingness to go the extra mile for people and places, is a frequently overlooked asset for local government to draw on. Simply creating the mechanisms for bright and enthusiastic data people (regardless of whether they sit in a formal data and insights team or not) to interact with each other and with those who need their skills to improve decisions is an easy but often overlooked win.

Tip 4: Create a data and insights community of practice across your organisation. Spread the message far and wide and if possible, get some executive backing for your initiative. Gather ideas for projects and develop a pipeline of initiatives you intend to pursue that have a clearly defined value add.

A focus on expediency is critical in the early stages; find those quick wins and high-profile fixes that deliver a tangible benefit to a stakeholder who will be willing to spread the word further when you deliver.

The benefit of the community approach is in the multi-disciplinary team that will be created as a result. As with any professional area, bringing together diverse and knowledgeable perspectives on issues leads to better solutions.

5. Seize the zeitgeist to sustain the appetite

This article began with reflections on the unique position that data, and the insights we can drive from it, have assumed in both the organisational and wider societal consciousness. What better time, then, to make the case for investment in improving your organisation’s ability to drive value from it.

We would argue that alongside thinking about your operating model and modernising your architecture (both of which take time), a great bet to place is on raising organisational data literacy. This means advancing the skills of those who already “get it”, but also raising the base level of your people’s comfort with using data as part of the decision-making process.

Tip 5: Investing in raising data literacy does not have to mean spending a fortune on organisation-wide in-person training. Some of the more forward-thinking organisations we have worked with are ringfencing time for people to invest in personal development, recognising that the ongoing development of capability, not just capacity, is critical to performance improvement.

The sheer range of free-to-access training material, available online and covering everything from use of data for business decision-making to advanced machine learning using cloud platforms, means that the barrier to getting started has never been lower. There’s a link here, too, with your community of practice. For example, one of the quickest ways to deliver value is through lunch and learn-style sessions – even easier to arrange now given the meteoric rise in virtual working we’ve seen over the last year.

And there you have it, five easy steps you can take now that will help to ensure the focus on data as a strategic asset is not a fleeting fad, but a permanent change at every level of your organisation.

 

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