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How can local government harness data?

Our Policy and research director, Martin Ferguson, opened today’s (Thursday 21 January 2021) Government ICT virtual summit – organised by GovNet.

His discussion, with Sue Bateman (Deputy Director, Data and Innovation at the Government Digital Service) focused on Secure, Effective, and Open Data Use Across Government.

For members who were unable to attend, here is his introduction:

Starting point – Why? Why does it matter?

For Agatha Anywio (aged 76 from London) – quoted in the House of Lords Public Services Committee’s recent report, it matters “Because of my age and health … I had a letter from the Government telling me that I should officially shield, but nothing happened … It was about four weeks into lockdown before I was actually recognised, only because I persisted … If I had kept quiet and done nothing about it, I have a feeling that I might have been completely forgotten.”

I suspect many in the audience may be able to tell similar stories. Her experience was not uncommon.

So, how can data help?

Notwithstanding Agatha’s experience, Socitm has collected many success stories of how data has been used to support and build the resilience of individuals and communities in facing current challenges. I’ll share just three examples:

  1. Identifying vulnerable and shielding residents and working with community and voluntary organisations to support their needs – not just physical (food parcels), but their connectedness and emotional needs too e.g. Surrey.
  2. Granular mapping of disease data at street level – tracking outbreaks against high risk locations and managing the response e.g. Glasgow.
  3. Data-driven coordination of access to digital services – devices and broadband e.g. care homes and schoolchildren in Norfolk. (Question: Is it ok to use data on children registered for free school meals as a proxy for digital exclusion?)

What can we learn from these and many more experiences about the way that data has been collected, curated and harnessed?

  • The need for clarity of purpose and meaning.
  • Focus on demonstrable benefits/outcomes.
  • Realisation of the value of purposeful, open, transparent and free flow of data.

Purpose and meaning

  • Use of data founded on a meaningful sense of place and purpose
  • Built on ecosystems of trust – examples such as the digital care record in Leeds; in many areas, projects like these have laid a foundation of relationships across places – spaces with meaning – that people identify with – where a common sense of purpose has been nurtured – not just between organisations, but importantly with different communities. It is these foundations – ecosystems of trust – that have been leveraged during the pandemic in Leeds, Sussex and elsewhere.
  • And, it is worth noting that this approach of has:
    • broken through the public policy impasse of the past … mindsets and institutions trapped in an orthodox, centrally-driven, mechanistic approach to harnessing data.
    • embraced an organic, creative, garden mindset – one that engages with people and communities – to harness data with purpose and meaning with them – not one that does things to them, often with perverse outcomes.

Demonstrable benefits/outcomes

What we have seen is local areas harnessing data and community assets to meet their unique needs:

  • used local data, knowledge and insight about needs to improve the distribution and delivery of services;
  • shared data and joined-up services to meet the unique needs of communities and the holistic needs of individuals in their area;
  • built on the shared sense of place and purpose among local people, frontline workers and service leaders;
  • captured data on skills and capacity available in the community and activated these skills and capacities, particularly through local voluntary sector and community groups; and
  • achieved better outcomes for people and businesses, all of which creates a cycle and growing culture of trust.

More than this, harnessing data in this collaborative way enables local areas to address the deeply entrenched, so-called wicked problems that also typically involve hard to reach groups.

COVID-19 changed the outcomes for homeless and rough sleepers almost overnight.

There are numerous other examples where harnessing data and assets locally is achieving positive results, both pre-dating and during the pandemic.

Barking & Dagenham has pioneered the use of a multivariate Social Progress Index to pinpoint and target service interventions where they are most needed and likely to produce better outcomes for people and businesses. The kinds of deep-seated problems that Barking & Dagenham, Greater Manchester and others have been able to address include:

  • Supporting vulnerable people
  • Safeguarding children at risk
  • Violence and domestic violence
  • Multi-generational joblessness
  • Food, fuel and digital poverty
  • Differences in life expectancy
  • Obesity and fitness
  • Unpreparedness of children for school
  • Noise and air pollution
  • Economic regeneration and inward investment
  • Generating conditions favourable to creating and sustaining ecosystems of start-up

All of these examples are built on foundations of …

Purposeful, open, transparent and free flow of data

Open and transparent about the ways in which we collect, share and harness data for commonly agreed purposes.

COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the need for:

  • Commonly agreed, open standards for collecting and recording data e.g. absence of Unique Property Reference Numbers in central gov provided data. UPRNs have been an accepted standard across local government for the last 20 years – only now has central gov mandated their use in new IT systems.
  • Free flow of data e.g. between central and local government – as Alison McKenzie-Folan (CX Wigan Council) said in Solace’s evidence to the House of Lords Public Services Committee earlier this month, the flow of data should not be one based on lobbying and banging on the door of central government departments. Nor should LAs be receiving data late (e.g. on shielded groups, despite them having responsibility for delivering food parcels), nor should LG staff up and down the land have to work night and day to reconcile non-standard records with local data.

House Of Lords Public Services Committee report:

Kirklees Council, a local authority in Yorkshire, described how organisations at the centre had approached data-sharing during the pandemic:

Data-sharing from organisations such as PHE (Public Health England) and DHSC has been wholly inadequate … the lack of data on testing … has left local areas with no mechanism for monitoring the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 … Local arrangements that have been put in place to try and address the gaps in national data-sharing have required lengthy manual data cleansing processes.

  • Free flow of data – NHS and social care, community and voluntary groups – we are still missing a consistent and effective approach to hospital discharges and sharing of data with the tragic consequences that had in the care home sector.
  • Recent ICS consultation – here we strongly advocated the creation of local ecosystems or architectures of data and information sharing based on commonly agreed, transparent purposes (that incidentally would be in line with the latest ICO Data Sharing Code of Practice).
  • Analysis and visualisation – the power of maps – presenting geographically refenced data e.g. access to green space.
  • Ethics and accountability – collecting, analysing and presenting data for good not harm, maintaining human agency, being just, fair and inclusive in its use and impacts, explaining how data is deployed to generate benefits and better outcomes – particularly relevant as we explore the use of AI, machine learning and algorithms in public services.
  • Skills and capabilities – creating a profession (FEDIP in social care and health), building centres of excellence e.g. Data Mill North, Norfolk and many other examples of regional Data Hubs, TfL, LoTI, NHS Scotland Share Services, drawing on university, public, private and voluntary sector expertise, recognising the untapped potential of graduates from social science, technology and engineering disciplines (with data analytics, science, visualisation skills and a grounding in data ethics), investing in graduate apprenticeships and building multi-disciplinary teams including data skills.

Why this matters to Socitm

  • A membership association of >2,500 members, working in partnership with key stakeholders and organisations across the UK, Europe, the Americas and Australasia.
  • Our members are responsible for the technologies and data that drive local public services and outcomes throughout the UK.
  • Our perspective on harnessing data, ethically, purposefully and openly, is framed by Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ approach to addressing the twin crises of burgeoning social inequality and environmental breakdown that we will undoubtedly face emerging from the pandemic – how can we build resilient social foundations and ecological sustainability? How can collaborative use of tech and data help in this endeavour?
  • The concerns, opportunities and learning that I have presented here are all underpinned by our member-led research and sharing of intelligence about what works in local areas.
  • They’re reflected in our responses to the recent National Data Strategy and NHS England Integrated Care System consultations

In conclusion

To sum up – and I return to my point about the culture and mindset for harnessing data locally. The key question for us in the National Data Strategy is how can we build a garden mindset and the associated approaches to harnessing data? – based on working in places with meaning for people – to nurture and create Secure, Open, Purposeful, Meaningful, Effective, Locally measurable and Accountable Data Use.

To this end we need a clear set of common, open standards and architectures that allow the free flow and sharing of data – not just across Government but across all of Gov – local as an equal partner with central – and embracing all those it needs to collaborate and work with, including people, businesses and community organisations at the grass-roots.