Data holds the key to unlock integrated public sector services, but it requires more than flicking the switch on new technology to make a difference.
The phrase “data saves lives” is the rallying call of the NHS and organisations worldwide facing the greatest public health emergency for generations. The pandemic has cost many lives and wrecked livelihoods. COVID-19 is nothing less than a global catastrophe.
Yet if anything good has come from the continuing ravages of COVID, it is recognition of the value of public sector data.
“Beyond COVID, through integrated care systems, local government and policing, data can be used more efficiently and effectively in a host of applications,” says Richard Walker, partner for data and insights at Agilisys, which works with the public sector to achieve data-led transformation of services.
Data helps answer difficult questions, he says. How do we deliver better care for an ageing population with changing needs? How do we predict and prevent threats to public safety? How do we move around the country more efficiently and effectively address the challenges of our net-zero objectives?
Yet to be successful, data must be seen as more than a tool to ask interesting research questions resulting in little beyond a knowing nod before returning to business as usual. If we are to impact the outcomes of individuals, we must ensure the insights that data creates are tied to a decision or action that changes them.
Walker, along with Agilisys data strategy and insight consultant Ben Scully, has helped deliver more than 100 successful data-led projects across the public sector, including development of a data strategy for the BLMK Partnership Integrated Care System for NHS teams in Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes.
Scully says: “Evaluation is at the heart of so much the integrated care system needs to have in place to achieve its objectives. First and foremost, evaluation helps us understand what actions are working and which interventions we need to change.
Evaluation is necessary to prove the benefits to residents and to society of why we’re doing all this: investing in data and technological transformation and new ways of working.”
Identifying the desired outcome and then collecting the correct data is the best way to address a problem. He says: “Let’s start with the ‘why’; the rest is the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. Let’s design a way of embedding insight into action.”
Walker adds: “Unless we actively use the insights from data, it’s all but impossible to come up with effective and sustainable responses to complex challenges.”
The technology sector has made great strides, spurred on by the growing adoption of cloud platforms, and the barriers to adopting tech have fallen. However, technology alone is not the solution.
“How you get more out of your data and use it to make better decisions for better outcomes does not start with technology,” says Walker. “As we have said, before you start investing in technology, first understand what you want to get out of it.
“Then you need to put in place the additional foundations of leadership, culture and skills; technology will fail unless you apply the fundamentals – our secret sauce.”
In particular, the role of leadership – someone willing to provide the mandate for system change – is crucially important in making this stick. “Leaders need to be visibly involved,” says Walker.
“The ability to talk passionately and compellingly, and then stand behind the project, is absolutely fundamental, along with having the necessary skills.”
Similarly, it is about feeling comfortable committing to data transformation knowing returns will follow. “Instead, all too often, organisations struggle to prioritise the case for investment in collecting, managing and exploiting data, and the potential of their data remains untapped,” he says.
“Yet we recognise budgets aren’t limitless and the multi-million-pound cost of fixing all your data is rightly intimidating. This is why you need to be able to prioritise the data most valuable to you: the data that enables you to make the key decisions and the right interventions, with an organisation set up to turn those priorities into real change for citizens and staff on the frontline.
“Human resources, finance, estates and IT have been around for decades. So has data. Yet we are only just starting to see the emergence of dedicated data capabilities. Leaders must be in a position to drive this change in approach and perception to be able to benefit from the enticing promises of predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning we are now regularly hearing about.”
However, Walker sounds a note of warning for the public sector, which may struggle to pay the high salaries commanded by data engineers and other specialists. “It is a supplier’s market when it comes to the digital skills gap, but we cannot move beyond shiny pilots and early-stage transformation without these skills,” he says.
“We are regularly working with clients to figure out the sustainable approach to skills that suits them, be it a transitioned managed service or operating model review to shared resources through multi-agency strategies with other public sector partners, the solutions are available and the prize too big to ignore.”
Agilisys has worked for more than 20 years with healthcare, local government and other public sector organisations to unlock the potential of technology and transform the services that improve lives.
The Agilisys data and insight practice guides organisations through that journey, from plotting a path to data maturity to deploying and managing an end-to-end technology-enabled data platform.
“We can coach you through the common challenges facing data such as leadership, talent, governance, culture and capability to deliver a fundamental shift in the way you use insight to drive action,” says Scully.
Walker concludes: “It is vital that in prepping yourself to cross the final hurdle and get your data programme funded, you don’t overlook the power in the human outcomes you plan to drive: better care, safer communities and a cleaner environment. Get that right and you should have a winning formula.”
This article first appeared in The Times/Raconteur Digital Transformation Supplement.