Data has been a “hot topic” for some time now in the public sector and there has been recently a great growth in new jobs and departments that cover this space – add that to the fact that Microsoft says they want all their partners to have a “data and AI strategy” and you can definitely see that this is an area worth investing resources into.  

There is, however, a large group of people in leadership positions in the public sector who tell me they “should be doing something about data” but don’t quite know where to start. Considering this, you can have two viewpoints when it comes to data: it can be a big problem or a great opportunity. 

Last week, Eduserv has co-hosted a roundtable discussion with Socitm (Society for IT professionals in the public sector) at Camden Council, entitled “Data to make a difference”, where local government IT leaders explored and shared their experiences around the subject.  

One key point was that foundations are really important when talking about data (standards, definitions, identifiers) and the UK’s public sector has a big problem with this, primarily because individuals don’t often have a single unique identifier  and even when they do, not all agencies adhere to using them (e.g. the ‘mandated for use’ NHS number). Consequently, this makes interoperability harder, particularly cross-agency, with public sector organisations often collecting data for their own purposes in a format that can’t be used by others. 

However, while trying to set the right foundations for data usage, there is a need to work with what we’ve got in the meantime, such as using unique identifiers for households (instead of individuals) to combine data-sets and provide a single view that can help understand problems and shape outcomes. In addition, it can also be helpful to have a ‘systems thinking’ approach, such as understanding the linkages and interactions between components that comprise an entire system, and what’s it is trying to achieve. 

It is no surprise that trust is a controversial topic: both in terms of those using data trusting its validity (i.e. if it is high-quality data); and members of the public who allow their data to be used trusting it will follow ethical standards. The latter can also be expanded into two complex questions: “How much do people ‘care’ about how their data is used? and “How can we ‘tell stories’ about real benefits gained from that data being used?”.

A big problem to tackle is the lack of data skills in the public sector, which in itself has many different levels that need addressing: 

  • General data literacy – staff understanding the importance of data and treating it in the right way. 
  • Data science and software engineers developing innovative ways to work with data – as one roundtable participant put it: ‘everything can be automated apart from the automation’. 
  • Leadership – how to create value from data and to build innovation from it. 

There is still much work to be done when it comes to data harnessing in the public sector, however, we need to start laying the foundations for it so it is done the right way from the start. Granted, mistakes will be made, but we must make sure the overall way we use and manage this data will create a nurturing space for innovation and improvement of citizen services – whilst following ethical standards.  

About the author

Natasha Veenendaal

Natasha runs Eduserv's Local Government Executive Briefing programme. Working closely with Jos Creese, Principal Analyst, and the steering group of senior local government leaders, she aims to increase sector-wide understanding of the benefits of cloud computing and broader digital initiatives. This includes working on research reports, conducting interviews, putting together events and engaging with industry figures at events and through social media. Before Eduserv, she spent 14 years working for international publishing and events businesses. First in the financial sector with 9 years at Euromoney, including a two year secondment in Hong Kong, and more recently 5 years in digital, delivering conference agendas on topics such as app development, enterprise mobility, cloud, and digital marketing.

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