How councils can develop a mindset for data

by Eddie Copeland

The following short article was written for the Local Government Chronicle.

In recent years, a growing number of councils have been experimenting with using data to improve their services and decision making.

What do we know about what it takes to succeed?

Many other articles cover the mechanics of using data. Here, I want to briefly focus on three mindsets councils need to adopt.

The first is a willingness to collaborate. Given the scale of the financial challenges facing the sector, it’s not sufficient for councils merely to get smarter at using their own data. Many of the tried and tested ways of delivering more and better with less depend on using data to improve cooperation with partners.

Consider that:

– Shared services can only be intelligently designed if councils not only have visibility of the scale of the demand in their own areas, but also the data on those same issues on the other side of their boundaries.

– The activities of multiple teams collaborating to deliver complex public services can only be effectively coordinated if each team has some data on what the others are doing.

– Predicting and preventing problems from happening – or at least intervening earlier – is possible, but only if the disparate datasets that can collectively point to cases of higher risk can be sourced.

To see what can be done, look to Greater Manchester’s GM Connect programme, which has been working on sharing data on child truancies between its eleven local authorities to ensure vulnerable families can be identified and supported.

The second mindset is about having a greater willingness to accept measured risk. Many local government leaders will have witnessed well-meaning but poorly executed data initiatives that backfired.

Understanding data protection legislation may feel intimidating. But if any progress is to be made, leaders need to acknowledge that though there are some risks to sharing data, some of the worst public sector failures have come about because information was not joined up. Happily, there is a growing body of information, support and advice on how to use data ethically, legally and securely from organisations like the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

There are many practical examples showing the art of the possible, from places like Manchester, which, as mentioned, has created a “child passport” that helps all agencies have a single view of what is known about vulnerable children; Essex, where the County Council is working to identify children at risk of not being school-ready by the age of five; and London, where they are piloting an Office of Data Analytics that has focused on identifying unlicensed HMOs (houses of multiple occupancy). Councils should seek to learn from all these places.

The last mindset is to understand that data is useful to the extent that it can be acted upon. It should never be viewed as an academic exercise that can be delegated to a team of data geeks. Analysts need to be given the time, resources and space to work closely with council leaders, service managers and frontline staff to understand the real world challenges councils face, and develop better ways of working together.

Collaborating; fairly weighing risks; focusing on action. These things are not enough in their own right, but focusing on developing these mindsets in relation to data will certainly increase councils’ odds of success.

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