Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

Future of Local Governance: opening up access to data and taking advantage of new technologies


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The Academy of Government has been hosting regular seminars on the future of local governance in Scotland. LGiU Scotland’s Charlotte Maddix takes us through what was discussed and the questions that were raised at the most recent event. Contact the Academy for more details on these seminars.

At the latest seminar we heard from Chris Dibben, Director of the Administrative Data Research Centre for Scotland; and Ritchie Somerville, Programme Advisor of the Data Driven Innovation Programme at the University of Edinburgh. Ritchie has written up his thoughts elsewhere on the blog – click for a reflection on five challenges (or opportunities) relating to how public services are delivered.

The Administrative Data Research Centre for Scotland – funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – enables researchers to access datasets on the entire Scottish population. The Centre works on linking up massive datasets – in health, housing, justice – to make them available for those wanting to to test out policy decisions or examine historical policies.

Making policy decisions based on census data might mean you have a 15 year gap in your knowledge about the situation on the ground. Using proxy indicators to ‘fill in gaps’ in data – such as basing poverty on car ownership – can create biased pictures that lead to poorly planned policy decisions. Policy makers are doing a lot of thinking about how to develop policy that accounts for different locations (islands, rural areas) or different groups of people (watch out for our upcoming briefing on housing policy for LGBT+ tenants).

Chris highlighted one project run in Tennessee, STAR, where teachers were randomly assigned to children in classes of different sizes. Small classes scored higher on tests – an interesting outcome for anyone working in education in Scotland, where the teacher/child ratio has been the main focus of national policy decisions. But what other factors influenced the outcome? Were all possible permutations accounted for? And what are the long-term effects of a smaller class size – does scoring higher on tests as a child translate into better pay or increased happiness later in life? These are the kinds of questions that linking datasets can strive to answer.

The ADRC takes its responsibilities around storing and linking data very seriously. The four research centres around the UK, plus additional ‘safe spaces’ to access data in’, provide a secure environment for holding data and enabling research – data doesn’t travel.

We also heard from Ritchie Somerville on data driven innovation in government. You can read Ritchie’s full blog here. A few key takeaways for local government, though…

The traditional way of developing a business has changed dramatically. Innovation now happens faster – and new products can be adopted by consumers incredibly quickly (think back to the launch of Pokémon Go). How can local governments regulate for that? Uber and AirBnB are of course the classic examples – see our briefing on new forms of tourist accommodation. Governments have had to take traditional legislation, designed for traditional business, and bend it to make it suit new situations. As above, local needs can vary massively – think about the recent issues raised in Skye over accommodation for tourists. Areas still seeking a boost in tourism income might need a different approach to those inundated with short term lets.

Inevitably, Estonia and its approach to sharing data across public services came up – see our briefing for more information on this. There, the major public and private service providers can share information generated about the country’s residents. Each resident has a mandatory personal ID that lets them interact with service providers. Transactions within the system are protected by Blockchain. Technologies like this could transform public services such as, for example, benefits. Currently, the benefits system relies on repeatedly establishing identity; building ‘trust’ that a person is who they say they are; fetching data about their health condition; and so on. In theory, technologies like those employed in Estonia could condense these actions.

New technology also has the potential to have a massive impact on jobs. In our society, the biggest ‘demand’ areas in terms of where jobs are needed are childcare, and older age healthcare. These jobs demand a massive amount of contact hours. Other areas are contracting – technology is reducing the demand for people. In theory, technology could enable society to put more time into ‘demand’ areas like childcare as it automates other areas where the human touch is, arguably, less crucial. The aim of artificial intelligence is not to replace humans, but to empower them to be more effective. Take a look at our recent blog from Oracle on how AI could be used in local government.

Crowdsourcing is another technology that presents both challenges and opportunities for local government. It unquestionably has an effect on the role of elected members, changing the relationship between councillors and their communities. How can we make sure that crowdsourced decisions are informed decisions?

Following these fascinating presentations, the conversation moved onto consider the implications of the ADRC’s datasets and the technological opportunities presented for governance in Scotland. Questions raised included:

What would a data strategy for Scotland mean?

How can we ensure that communities have access to data? How about start-ups and social enterprises?

Successful solutions are being developed in local areas across Scotland, but how do we link those up to learn from them?

How do we resolve the tension between our centralised model of government and the need to make locally-applicable decisions?

Local government officers wanting to explore accessing and using the Administrative Data Research Centre for Scotland’s data can contact the ADRC.