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Data enabled public services need funding to scale, but better tools are also part of the answer

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Data is playing an increasingly important role in the transformation of public services.

By Leigh Dodds, Director of Advisory at the Open Data Institute.

Shared with permission from the ODI.

Despite difficult financial times, the plethora of data now available is enabling us to rethink how services are developed to tackle specific public needs, from bin collection and addiction recovery, to careers advice and childcare needs. By publishing, sharing and analysing data in new ways, we can find new solutions. At the same time – as reported by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – there are valid concerns about: how data-enabled services might exclude those who lack digital skills; potential discrimination arising from biases in data collection and use; and the protection of people’s dignity and human rights.

Through the Open Data Institute’s R&D programme, we have worked with, funded and supported local authorities and service designers around the country who are designing public services using locally sourced data. Additionally, since 2018, the government’s Local Digital Fund has supported projects to ‘address common local service challenges in common, reusable ways’. Many of these projects are exploring new uses of data, new ways of collaborating across local government, and how to do it in trustworthy and responsible ways. 

Here are a few examples of local authorities using data to explore a range of social issues around the country.

  • Careers advice in Doncaster
    A careers pilot provided aggregated advice and guidance for young people – making information about post-16 career options more freely available and accessible. Grounded in what young people said they would find most useful, the team at Doncaster Council and UsCreates prototyped a service to meet students’ needs and potentially reduce the number of young people aged 16–18 not in education, employment or training.
  • Addiction recovery in Edinburgh
    The Addiction Recovery Companion (ARC) app helped users to track progress, boost motivation and access recovery services in Edinburgh. The app contained information about addiction recovery meetings in Edinburgh. The Drug and Alcohol services data was sourced from the Edinburgh Open Data Portal.
  • Early help services in Wandsworth
    The government recently awarded funding to tackle issues including domestic violence, substance misuse, mental health problems, poverty and family issues in Wandsworth. Across the country, early help services lack sufficient data to assess the performance and business case for their services, making them vulnerable to budget cuts. The project aims to identify what data would improve the quality of early help services and why it isn’t currently available.

We have highlighted more case studies of local government innovation in our work, and the Local Government Association also has a directory of innovative case studies across London councils. The LocalGov Digital Pipeline provides a dashboard demonstrating the progress of other case studies emerging from the work of service design agencies supporting local government, from discovery to delivery.

Over the last two years we’ve been exploring how to support innovation in the public sector. What if teams could scale and replicate the common elements and data principles of successful projects, while appreciating and addressing local needs? What if there were tools to help local authorities, charities, social enterprises and businesses collaborate to design and redesign the best possible public services?

Finding the right tools

To help answer those questions, we’ve developed our freely available Data and Public Services Toolkit.

The toolkit is designed to help local government and service designers use data effectively and ethically. It can be used collaboratively across teams and across organisations, and requires no technical skills. The toolkit includes:

  • a Business Case Canvas to help service designers and managers make a case for services using data;
  • a Data Ecosystem Mapping tool to identify the different roles of those involved in data projects and opportunities for increasing value;
  • the Data Ethics Canvas which helps identify and manage issues around the ethical and responsible use of data.

The tools encourage users to start conversations at various levels of an organisation around what data might be available and how it might be used. Through case studies we aim to show what is possible, what the common stumbling blocks might be, and how they can be navigated.

Scaling up

While pilots and proof-of-concept projects have identified efficiencies, insights and pathways for more customer-focused services, a lack of ongoing funding means that many haven’t been able to progress to delivery. Lots of these projects are creating impact and not only deserve to continue, but also to scale to other areas of the country that are facing similar problems.

At the ODI we have worked with a wide range of projects, we’ve seen their ingenuity and passion for collaboration and change. We’ve also seen first hand how difficult it has been for them to get senior buy-in and funding to make their ideas a reality, and scale them to their peers. This difficulty in scaling and replication is a common, complex problem to solve.

A lack of sustainable funding and evidence is a big issue, but there are also others. For example, concerns about how one data model will transfer to another area with different social circumstances and challenges. Differences in how services are procured and delivered, concerns about risks around sharing data, and lack of common standards means that data ecosystems across regions are very varied. This can hamper access to necessary data. The difficulty of reusing and improving existing code – for example if it is not shared and published under an open licence – creates additional barriers.

Overcoming those challenges will require a range of approaches; planning to scale and sharing learnings is a necessary first step. This makes our checklist for scaling data-enabled projects an important part of our toolkit.

Building the best possible services

Ultimately we should be building the best possible public services. That involves using data in ways that can benefit local communities while minimising potential harmful impacts. Funding is important for sustainable data driven services which can scale, but so is support, both from peers and in the form of free tools and guides that can help to share best practices.

Thank you so much for permission from the ODI to share this content.