How local gov Chief Execs can help their organisations use data effectively


Gavin Jones, Chief Executive of Essex County Council, recently posted this tweet:

It was great to see, for the exact reasons that Dominic Campbell pointed out:

It’s been a while since I’ve waxed lyrical on the subject of local government use of data. So, armed with this fresh excuse to offer an opinion, let me attempt a more detailed answer to Gavin’s question. I hope it might be helpful for other council CEOs, too.

I’ll start with a brief recap on the importance and limitations of using data in local government, move onto what the Covid pandemic has taught us, and then offer ten specific things CEOs can do to help their organisations use data more effectively. (Feel free to scroll to the end if you just want to read the suggestions.)

Why care about data? A brief recap


Data is the lifeblood of any modern organisation. 

At the most basic level, each and every one of us depends on data to do our jobs. If I don’t know what my colleagues are up to, or what my clients need, or how much I’ve spent, or where I need to be next Tuesday, I can’t possibly be competent let alone effective at my job.

In organisations as complex as councils (>500 lines of service; 250,000 residents etc), that need is even more urgent and undeniable. We cannot possibly understand our residents’ needs, deliver effective services or make sound strategic decisions if we don’t have data on what those needs are, where and how our services are operating, or the context in which those decisions are taking place.

Furthermore, using our own data is not enough. When we have to work with dozens of other teams and organisations to get our jobs done, we need to have some degree of common sight of each others’ activities and knowledge. 

When that doesn’t happen – when data is siloed – it leads to organisational blind spots. At best those create inefficiency. At worst they risk letting people fall through the cracks. I’ve never met a public sector colleague who didn’t want to avoid that.

Using data responsibly


Data isn’t great for everything. As with all ‘advanced’ methods available to local government, we must put down the Kool-Aid and reflect in a sober fashion about what data is good for, and where it might lead us astray. So let me make some broad (and necessarily crude) generalisations.

Data is really good at stuff like:

  • Showing patterns and trends (where stuff is, when and where it happens etc.)
  • Optimising your current processes
  • Finding specific cases in a wider population
  • Prioritising cases
  • Predicting what might happen next

But it can also be used inappropriately. For example:

  • There’s a risk we spend lots of time gathering and looking at data and not doing anything much at all (aka “analysis paralysis”).
  • There’s a risk we spend time using data to optimise a service when the service itself is fundamentally broken or inadequate. (See my previous blog on when to keep, fix, enhance, swap or replace a service.) 
  • There’s a risk that a data model (based on some assumptions) doesn’t spot or accurately predict what’s going on if we fail to account for the fact that the real world is messy and complicated. 
  • There’s a risk we treat data as a cure-all, when to make progress it needs to be accompanied by policy and process changes. Or more seriously…
  • There’s a risk we kid ourselves that the reason we haven’t taken action on a particular matter is due to a lack of data, rather than because of some more fundamental and challenging shortfall that we need to address.

In summary: data methods represent one, very useful and powerful set of tools with which organisations can make good things happen. But data is not always the best or total solution.

What did the pandemic teach us?


As Dominic mentions in his tweet, one positive of the Covid experience is that public sector leadership teams have developed a much more acute awareness of the importance of data. But what is it that’s become apparent? 

Data timeliness matters: The crisis revealed that traditional government statistics aren’t much help when you need to act fast. At the start of the first lockdown, when councils wanted rapidly to determine which households were most vulnerable, it was clearly inadequate to rely on, say, figures from the last academic year concerning which children are in receipt of free school meals. Later, as areas emerged from lockdown, periodic economic statistics were not great at giving visibility about how well high streets were recovering. Councils need data that keeps up with the pace of their need to act.

Data quality matters: Councils had many frustrations when the data they were expected to use didn’t have the quality or detail they needed. One example was when they had to use data from national government and NHS sources to identify and support shielded residents, which often lacked correct information on things like phone numbers.

Data blindspots matter: Not having data to meet new needs was another challenge. For example, councils were tasked with giving out a number of support grants to local businesses. Many discovered that the data they had about those businesses was fine for collecting business rates, but was insufficient for the new need of paying money out. They often lacked data on businesses’ account details, email addresses and so on.

Data sharing matters: The ability to share data internally and externally was shown to be vitally important. Internally, councils that already had great systems in place to combine data from different teams found it much easier than those who lacked that capability to quickly assess which households might face multiple vulnerabilities in the new environment. Externally, as councils sought to work much more closely with their local VCS partners, it quickly became apparent that not being able to share data easily between those organisations made partnership working to support residents tough. 

10 Practical things CEOs can do


So what can CEOs do to help their organisations resolve some of these issues and use data effectively? Here are ten suggestions, outlined in brief summary:

1 – Help all staff develop a nuanced understanding of the role of data, its limitations and what else it requires to have an impact.

I recommend training all staff in the steps outlined in LOTI’s outcomes-based Data Methodology. As you’ll see below, as well as focusing on real-world outcomes, it asks: “Who could do something differently if they had better information”. It’s this step that will help you know whether or not data is an appropriate and helpful tool for what you’re trying to do. Critically, it also includes a reminder to think about what other enablers are needed beyond the data to achieve your intended outcomes.

LOTI Outcomes-Based Data Methodology

LOTI Outcomes-Based Data Methodology

2 – Focus on internal data management – can you quickly build up a picture of what you know from data held by different teams?

A clear lesson from the pandemic was that unpredictable things happen which require councils to rapidly figure out what they know about an individual (e.g. a person needing to shield), a household (e.g. which of them have multiple vulnerabilities?), a community (e.g. who’s digitally excluded?) or a place (e.g. where is social distancing not happening?). To do this, you need the systems and processes in place to combine and analyse data from different teams.

3 – Embed data ethics into everything you do with data

Any use of data must be done in a way that’s not just legal but ethical and worthy of residents’ trust. As councils seek to make more ambitious use of data, CEOs should be fully sighted on how that assessment is being made in their organisations. There are lots of useful tools to help with this. One of the best and easiest to use is the Open Data Institute’s Data Ethics Canvas

4 – Standardise Information Governance

Information Governance is the process of checking that data is being used and shared legally and securely. In order to share data with other organisations, it’s much easier if you follow a standard process and use a common set of tools for doing this. See the advice LOTI has set out in this blog.

5 – Engage in forums to collaborate with data / join your local ODA

Sharing data between organisations is vital but hard. It helps to have expert facilitation. If you’re lucky enough to be in an area that has an Office of Data Analytics (ODA – see Nesta’s map below), sign up as a member and fully engage it in its work. (In London that’s LOTI!)

Map showing the locations of 10 offices of data analytics in the UK

Nesta Offices Of Data Analytics Map

6 – Give your data teams a remit to work on service reform – not just KPI reporting!

At every local government data conference I’ve spoken at or chaired in the last eight years, I’ve always asked the audience: “How many of you feel your organisations make full use of your data talents?” Even in rooms of >500 people, I’ve never seen more than 5 hands raised. Candidly, there are a lot of frustrated data analysts in local government doing standard monthly dashboards and KPI reporting who could be working with your service leads to bring data to bear on improving services for residents. Let them! Better still, make it a key part of their job working within multidisciplinary teams.

7 – Be open-minded about data sources

In response to the lack of timeliness and quality in some government data, it’s worth seriously considering if data held by private sector organisations could provide the insight you need. During the pandemic, some councils made use of data from the likes of O2 and Mastercard to get a better understanding of economic activity on local high streets. I’d strongly encourage CEOs to explore how datasets from outside the public sector could open up new possibilities for their work.

8 – Demand good data to make decisions

If you want to change your organisation’s culture to use data more effectively, you need to model that change. Demand good data before making decisions. Demand that your colleagues show how data has informed their decisions. We can work to improve the supply side of data forever. Little will change unless the demand side is there, too.

9 – Demand good data from central government

Local government has been on the receiving end of some poor quality datasets sent from national government and other organisations. Resolving those issues has taken up hundreds of hours of your staff’s time. That’s not anyone’s fault as such, but it’s based on some system-wide challenges that need addressing. The local government sector needs strong data partnerships with central government and a seat at the table when data initiatives are designed and rolled out. As CEOs, your voice in demanding that seat is vital.

10 – Try some stuff and start small

If your organisation isn’t yet making massive use of data, that’s fine. Start small, practise, learn, create some tangible things that you can point to. You’ll win hearts and minds and raise everyone’s confidence by rehearsing those new ways of working with data. Do that consistently enough, and bit by bit those new ways of working will become habits. Habits that spread throughout organisations are what lead to culture change. It all starts with that first step.

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Avatar by Eddie Copeland
26 March 2021 ·