Many other articles cover the mechanics of councils using data. Here, I want to focus on the mindsets councils need to adopt.
The first is a willingness to collaborate. Given the scale of the financial challenges, it’s not sufficient for councils merely to get smarter at using their own data. Many of the ways of delivering more with less depend on using data to improve cooperation with partners.
Shared services can only be intelligently designed if councils can see the scale of the demand in their own areas and have the data on those same issues on the other side of their boundaries. The activities of multiple teams collaborating to deliver complex public services can only be effectively coordinated if each team has some data on what the others are doing. Predicting and preventing problems is possible but only if the datasets that can collectively point to cases of higher risk can be sourced.
To see what can be done, look to Greater Manchester’s GM Connect programme, in which the ten councils share data on child truancies to identify and support vulnerable families.
The second mindset is about having a greater willingness to accept measured risk. Many local government leaders will have witnessed well-meaning but poorly executed data initiatives that backfired.
Understanding data protection legislation may feel intimidating. But if any progress is to be made, leaders need to acknowledge that though there are some risks to sharing data, some of the worst failures have come about because information was not joined up. Happily, there is a growing body of information and advice on how to use data ethically, legally and securely from organisations like the Information Commissioner’s Office.
There are many practical examples showing what is possible from places like Manchester, which, as mentioned, has created a ‘child passport’ that gives all agencies a single view of vulnerable children; Essex, where the county council is identifying children who may not be school-ready by age five; and London, where they are piloting an Office of Data Analytics that has focused on identifying unlicensed houses of multiple occupancy. Councils should seek to learn from all these sources.
The last mindset is to understand data is useful to the extent that it can be acted on. It should never be viewed as an academic exercise that can be delegated to a team of geeks. Analysts need to be given the resources to work closely with council leaders, managers and frontline staff to understand the challenges councils face and develop better ways of working together.
Collaborating; fairly weighing risks; focusing on action. These things are not enough in their own right, but focusing on developing these mindsets in relation to data will certainly increase councils’ odds of success.
Eddie Copeland, director of government innovation, Nesta