It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that good data saves money for local authorities and the public sector more broadly. Using analytics to deliver targeted interventions is ‘bread and butter’ stuff for many organisations these days.

Central Government mandarins talk about nothing else. The Number 10 Data Science team is making waves across the system. CDDO is grasping the cross-Government piece. The use of NHS data was at the forefront of the UK’s Covid fightback and the pandemic put a rocket in the trousers of Whitehall Permanent Secretaries eager to embrace the benefits they saw.  

Next slide please. 

While some bigger local authorities have embraced a data-first approach many have struggled to keep up. This is for a number of reasons. 

  1. Collection. Many authorities use a complex array of different applications and suppliers to collect data creating organisational confusion. 
  2. Access. Almost all data systems are built on proprietary software outside the hands of local authorities. Complete control is difficult. Access down the line can be expensive. 
  3. Identifiers. It’s tricky for local government data experts to join the dots between data sets. Lots of information doesn’t have unique identifiers.  
  4. Metadata. Tables, tables and more tables. But what does it mean? Institutional knowledge is lost when the data owner leaves the organisation. 
  5. Data literacy. Many local leaders are not data literate. That’s understandable: many come from traditional policy or operational background. They resort to what they know. 
  6. Skills. Data analysts in local authorities have to be jack of all trades: collection, analysis, dashboard and storytelling.  In the private sector these roles are more specialised. Things can get expensive. 
  7. Brain drain. Just look at the acute shortage of software engineers across local authorities. The situation is similar on the data side. Half of all businesses are recruiting for hard data roles. Better wages elsewhere and burnout are just two of the big factors. Smaller authorities are hit hardest. 
  8. Money. Many authorities big and small are struggling to keep their head above water. Trying something new when budgets are tight seems regressive. 

In terms of priorities “data is the new digital” is how one senior Whitehall colleague rather simply put it to me. Getting it right is that important for central government.  

There are no easy solutions to some these problems.  

A big piece of the puzzle though is getting procurement right. Early engagement pre-tender with suppliers about longer term access. Making sure your data solutions are fit for a time horizon beyond the current financial year and for when existing colleagues inevitably move on. 

Bringing in the right consultancies is important too. At ForgeFront we offer a full data audit. What data do you have already to deliver your statutory duties? What do we need more of? Ultimately it all boils down to one thing: a robust data strategy that stands the test of time, long after your data consultants have left the building.

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