England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Technology

The importance of good data for public sector improvement

With roughly 2 and a half quintillion bytes of data created each day, we need intelligence to cut through the mass of available data and use it to drive improvement. Data is crucial in making sure we are making decisions that utilise our resources in effective ways, especially now as we face an unprecedented challenge as a result of Covid-19.

Good data can be used to:

  • Make sense of where we are, through comparisons and benchmarking good performance.
  • Allow us to understand what’s happening in local areas and to disaggregate from a national or even from a local authority level. National trends can mask individual experiences or small area experiences.
  • Provide transparency and accountability so we can understand what impact the decisions we’ve made have had on outcomes.
  • Look for patterns and relationships in the data across the whole system and understand all of the factors that are contributing to different outcomes.

Why is good data important to the public sector?

If we think about data as a pyramid, at the base of the pyramid we have lots of data collection initiatives being carried out across all organisations. As that data is passed up the chain through the pyramid, people make more sense of it and feed it up to the top of the pyramid where it is used as evidence for decision making. From there, data should inform the learning experience about how to collect data and collection activities at the bottom of the pyramid.

There are decreasing volumes of data as we go up the pyramid, but it becomes far more important – and if you don’t collect data right from the start of the pyramid, it’s not going to be fit for purpose for making a decision.

As data scientists and a data community, we often spend a lot of our time finding and accessing and cleaning data before we do anything particularly useful with it, which has a significant impact on our productivity. 80% of the data that we collect is unstructured so it becomes far more difficult to analyse and use for our evidence-making and decision-making processes. If we decrease the number of unstructured data within our organisations and make it more structured, this will instantly lead to more productivity.

There are challenges to improving data:

  • A disconnect between policy leads that are set in a direction and the data experts that are trying to collect data about those same things. People are on a need to know basis, and siloed information and data will get past up and down a chain of command but very rarely will it effectively pass across cells.
  • Multiple versions of the same data, ‘the truth’, are often circulating both within organisations and across the data community. This can be from two datasets collecting information about the exact same things but using different methodologies for capturing the data.
  • Data and information often only being published in tables within word documents and pdf documents.

When we’re talking about where we are now and where we need to go, it’s important that we’re realistic. For many organisations, they may have just a few data managers that work individually, surrounded by data on their screens day in day out, storing data on their own servers for their own purposes.

What we would like to get to is a holistic data environment where data flows seamlessly around an organisation and is presented to senior managers for making decisions and shaping the way forward for organisations.

For each organisation it’s going to be different. Some organisations will need to make those radical changes and invest a lot of time and effort into improving standards and their infrastructure, their culture and their ways of working. Other organisations might just need to make a few key changes to move to this better way of using data.

These perspectives on the importance of good data for public sector improvement were originally published as a video series, part of the Improvement Service Thought Leadership series. In the collection of videos, we look in more detail at the opportunities and challenges around data improvement, how data helps us describe our world, and how we get to data evolution. Watch the series in full on the Improvement Service website: https://www.improvementservice.org.uk/news/thought-leadership-series

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