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Making it stick – The post pandemic data imperative

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / whiteMocca)

It was interesting to read the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s (CDEI) report examining local government’s expanded use of data during the pandemic. Its findings were based largely on a roundtable event where several local authorities discussed their use of data during the pandemic, barriers to data-driven innovation, and hopes for the future.

First, the good news. There was real optimism from those around the table that data was being shared far more easily. This was, of course, in no small part thanks to the emergency powers that were granted at the height of the pandemic to enable sharing of data between health and local government. Although, it must be noted that this was at a local level with other public service providers, rather than between central government departments.

Cause for concern

This sharing of information throughout the pandemic led to data being used in more innovative ways than ever before. Rarely have data leaders at councils across the country found themselves and their teams so intrinsically embedded in strategic and operational decision making. The accolades have, quite rightly, been flowing for their work that is improving outcomes for citizens.

However, this optimism was tempered with a cause for concern. As attention turns to the future, the report described an apprehensive state among data leaders and practitioners in local government. Shorn of a pandemic-based premise to share and innovate, the prevailing concern was that the focus on data as a strategic asset for decision making will drop back to pre-pandemic levels. There is real fear that – after being unshackled for 12 months – those seeking to innovate with data will have to resume their place at the back of the funding and sponsorship queue.

Such a scenario would squander a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cement the foundations for future service delivery models that truly have data and insight at their heart. So, what needs to be done? Here are five low-cost, high-impact steps that can be taken now to safeguard progress and set a course for even greater influence going forward:

1: Put data and insight on the same footing as other strategic assets

Create mechanisms to cement new ways of working within business-as-usual (BAU) corporate governance. We’re working with one local authority that is planning to afford the data and insights team the same footing as the legal, HR and finance teams within the corporate approvals process for strategic decisions. Consulting the insights team will surely enhance decision making in the future and help to deliver better outcomes for citizens.

2: Put information governance (IG) at the heart of ongoing efforts to share

IG teams have suffered over the years from a reputation as nay-sayers; the people who chase after you in the (now virtual) corridor asking if you’ve completed your Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA). Flip that reputation on its head and ask IG teams to develop ways of maintaining enhanced sharing. Multiple legislation provides lawful basis for sharing data across public sector agencies. Sponsor their engagement with counterparts at other organizations (many areas have excellent working relationships via multi-agency IG forums). By doing so, historic “no’s” will become “yes’s” or at least, “let me have a look into it”!

3: Get good at talking about value

In a post-pandemic world, investments in data and insights will once again need to jostle with those with higher profile claims to scarce resource. Develop a framework for capturing and communicating the value being delivered. The most powerful messages are those that tell a story about value with the data to back it up. In a post pandemic world, pitches for investment will need to be more on point than ever, so work needs to start now!

4: Widen the point of attack and harness talent

Harnessing the latent potential of people represents one of the quickest routes to extracting value from data. Don’t restrict success by thinking that innovating with data has to come from IT or performance; create a data and insights community of practice across the entire organization. Spread the message far and wide and, if possible, get executive backing. A focus on expediency is critical early doors, so find quick wins and high-profile fixes that deliver tangible benefits that will resonate with key stakeholders. The benefit of the community approach is in the multi-disciplinary team that will intrinsically form.

5: Make data literacy a real priority

Investing in raising data literacy doesn’t mean spending a fortune on organization-wide, in-person training. The more forward-thinking organizations we’ve worked with are ringfencing time for people to invest in personal development. The sheer range of free-to-access training material available online that covers everything from use of data for business decision making to advanced machine learning using cloud platforms, means the barrier to getting started has never been lower. This links with community of practice; one of the quickest ways to deliver value is through lunch and learn style sessions, made even easier to arrange given the meteoric rise in virtual working over the last year.

Not a time for data anxiety

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s (CDEI) report highlighted how the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the innovative use of data at a local level. There has been a range of positive data-driven interventions launched or repurposed during the pandemic, However, work needs to be done so as not to undo the progress made over the past 12 months.

Whilst regulatory requirements must, of course, be strictly adhered to, it is not the time for data anxiety. Connecting the data dots within the organization and sharing the data between teams can lead to positive changes being made that will positively affect staff and citizens alike. Now is the time to build trustworthy governance that earns the confidence of team members and citizens alike. Following the five easy steps above will ensure organizations maintain their focus on data being a strategic asset. Data mustn’t be thought of as a fleeting fad, but rather a permanent fixture at every level of the organization.

Richard Walker, Partner for Data and Insights, Agilisys