How to put data to good use in government

Written by Geoffrey Lyons on 29 September 2017 in Feature
Feature

Civil servants have access to an unprecedented amount of data, but how can they better use it to improve citizen outcomes? Geoffrey Lyons reports on a recent round table discussion

In a no-frills conference room overlooking the Palace of Westminster, a woman is talking about her tonsils. “I had recently had my allergies tested, and my GP’s referral letter printed off my entire medical history on a single sheet of paper,” she says. “And there it was: my tonsillitis at the age of seven.”

Melanie Dawes is permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and she’s bringing up that decades-old throat infection to make a larger point about data. While it was impressive that there were medical records reaching all the way back to her tonsillitis in 1972, there also were glaring omissions on that piece of paper. “I saw these gaps and thought, ‘This is not my medical history,’” she says. “It got me thinking: I hope people don’t make decisions about me on the basis of that. I need to be in the room.”

Patchy data

The occasion for Dawes’s anecdote and the conclusion she drew from it was a round table discussion on how civil servants can make better use of data to improve citizen outcomes, chaired by Dawes and hosted in partnership with software company MarkLogic.

MarkLogic’s public sector director, Imran Razzaq, found Dawes’s point “very relevant” to that theme. “Users are becoming more aware of their data and what it means to them, and there’s increasing sensitivity about how it is shared, accessed and used,” he said. “Tech companies like ourselves are thinking about use. The last thing you want is a Daily Mail headline, so the onus is on us to develop innovation that allows data to be shared in a secure and practical way.”


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This drew approval from Zamila Bunglawala, deputy director of strategy and insight in the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit. But while Bunglawala is hopeful about the prospects of sharing data in useful ways, she had a more sober outlook on the current state of affairs: “The truth is that a lot of data is not accessible, it’s not interpretable, and it doesn’t offer a lot of insights. It’s published because it’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s transparent.”

Also from the Cabinet Office, Andrea Ledward, director of the civil service group, agreed that there’s quite a lot of “patchy data”.

“It’s good data but it’s pretty fragmented,” she said, “so it’s quite hard to put together in a coherent way because it’s in different forms for different reasons and at different kinds of levels.”

Mixed emotions

More important than the issue of coherency, however, is whether data ought to be shared in the first place. Andrew Goodman, programme director of digital, data, and technology at the Home Office, suggested there are contradictions in the public’s demands.

“There’s one expectation that it should be done – and another that it shouldn’t,” he says. The issue with this, he argued, is that data isn’t being shared when it really ought to be. “When you look at health information, you’re told that you can’t share this and you can’t share that, but there are insights that cannot be gathered unless you’re looking at the data.” 

Peter Lawrence, chief executive of the Civil Service Commission, attributed the inconsistency in public opinion to sheer emotion. He, too, cited health information as an example: “People get mad about shared data but then they go to A&E and the data isn’t available so they get upset,” he said. “There’s an emotion thing that’s really key because it changes depending on the situation – that’s the main issue that we need to overcome with good communications.”

For the greater good

Assuming the dual hurdles of fickle public demand and the difficulty of making patchy data coherent are overcome, the logical next step is to consider how, once it’s out there, data can be put to good use. 

Perhaps the most obvious objective is to improve citizen welfare. An apparently common way that data achieves social outcomes is through better maps. Sam Hartley of the Boundary Commission for England related how a small charity he came across at a Local Government Association event will now be better off with the commission’s maps.

“Their mission is to address problems with alcohol, and part of that means going around to pubs chatting with people about drink,” he said. The problem they faced, however, was obtaining the right maps for their routes. “Luckily we have maps for the whole of England, which they’re now going to put in their systems.” Hartley said this is a perfect example of the challenge government faces in communicating existing data. 

The Cabinet Office’s Ledward also had a maps story to share from her experience working in international development. “The UK government has been making investments in Indonesia in the last two to three decades, mapping land to know who owns it and work out what you do with it, which resulted last year in the first cargo shipment of certified timber arriving in the UK from Indonesia,” she said. In this instance, better data actually opened up international trade.

Strictly business

Data can also be used to generate profit, as demonstrated by Jonathan Nancekivell-Smith, director of performance and analysis at the Ministry of Defence. Nancekivell-Smith relates how his department’s data is used by private sector clients. “Our data is put to good use by our commercial partners who we spend a lot of money with,” he said. “They get more profit with us because they use the data we give them. We actually help people make more money.”

"The truth is that a lot of data is not accessible, it’s not interpretable, and it doesn’t offer a lot of insights" Zamila Bunglawala, Cabinet Office

Guy Leeser, deputy director and head of strategic design at HMRC’s Making Tax Digital, said there is “a whole range of commercial software providers who are queuing up to build software to sell to clients”. HMRC is itself benefiting from such software, which it requires firms to use to keep digital financial records. “We’re fundamentally changing the way we get hold of information,” Leeser said. “It’s saving 4.5 million small businesses from having to put in tax returns.”

The private sector is also keeping departments on their toes. Paul Maltby, director of data projects at DCLG, a MarkLogic customer, said that transparency is exposing weaknesses in government that are entry points for agile companies. “Transparency exposes the way you’re working, and we may not have companies like MarkLogic in this space if there wasn’t that visibility of how much we were really spending on less good technology and less good outcomes,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, MarkLogic’s Razzaq was able to vouch for this. “Historically we’ve seen a number of high profile failures of social care, due to ineffective data sharing” he said. “We delivered a pilot programme in Staffordshire that pulled together information from different silos – policing, social care, welfare, education, probation, etc. – so that caseworkers can get a complete and accurate view of that data.”

“By linking that data you begin to get real insight and can determine when best to intervene. It is this which drives real discernible citizen outcomes,” Razzaq said.

As this round table showed, people are like data in that way. It’s when they come together that insight emerges.

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