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‘Excelling with data is more about leadership and culture than maths capability’

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Making the best use of data is a matter of leadership, not good coding or database skills. Rachel Dalton reports on an LGC roundtable, supported by PA Consulting


Peter Fleming (Con), leader, Sevenoaks DC

Maryvonne Hassall, digital lead, Aylesbury Vale DC

Claire MacArthur, head of intelligence and insight, Essex CC

Jim McManus, director of public health, Hertfordshire CC

Ricky Morton, digital transformation and smart cities lead, Hammersmith & Fulham LBC

Pawda Tjoa, senior researcher, New Local Government Network

Juliet Whitworth, research and information manager, Local Government Association

Nick Golding, editor, LGC (chair)

David Rees, head of local government services, PA Consulting

Shaibal Roy, head of dark data analytics, PA Consulting

Austerity has forced councils to prioritise their service offer. They are seeking to intervene more strategically to target the groups who can benefit most and to reduce overall demand for services. To do this they require data – and they are fortunate in that they already hold vast amounts of information on their local population and area.

An LGC roundtable, sponsored by PA Consulting, explored the tentative steps councils have made towards accessing and interpreting the data at their disposal, as well as the immense opportunity it offers them in future.

Shaibal Roy, managing consultant at PA Consulting, said councils were “not making the most” of their data.

Dr Roy said local government has a great deal of data available that could be useful, but added: “When you see the problem-solving, it is not typical to see an extremely analytically robust approach.

“It comes down to culture. Excelling with data is much more about leadership and culture than about maths capability.”

Pawda Tjoa, senior researcher at the New Local Government Network, agreed, saying that to derive the most benefits from data, you needed a “cultural change within your organisation”. She added: “You need the leadership from the top.” 

Claire MacArthur, head of intelligence and insight at Essex CC, said: “A lot of our senior leaders are really keen to use data and know data might be the answer to all of their problems, but we don’t know what [data] we have.

“That is the starting point for us; understanding some of the problems our senior leaders are trying to solve, and then trying to find the answers in the data that we have.”

David Rees, PA Consulting’s head of local government services, asked the panellists what “hunches” about services within their councils they had always wanted to prove, and whether they would look to data to explore these.

But Peter Fleming (Con), leader of Sevenoaks DC, said councils themselves should not necessarily dictate what problems needed solving and therefore what data should be interrogated.

“There is a real danger of a really linear view: ‘this is the problem, this is the data we need to help us with this issue’,” said Cllr Fleming. He suggested it was often local developers or activists who were coming up with solutions to problems, without councils’ input.

Often we will try to find solutions to our own problems, but they might not be the problems of the residents we serve

Peter Fleming, Sevenoaks DC 

“There’s a guy in Kent called Mike Thompson, and he has put out a school admissions app. It just takes local authority data and shows you the catchment areas for primary schools on a map. It’s something parents really need. He’s nothing to do with the county council,” he said. 

Cllr Fleming also recounted an app developed by residents in Bristol, named The Hills Are Hell, which mapped routes across the city that avoided hills to help people with low mobility to travel independently.

“So often we will try to find solutions to our own problems, but they might not be the problems of the residents we serve,” he said.

Maryvonne Hassall, digital lead at Aylesbury Vale DC, said data had big implications for creating a more accurate picture of customer satisfaction. 

“Traditionally, we have always found out about customer satisfaction by asking people, but actually we’re sitting on all of this data; what does that tell us about satisfaction?” she said. 

“We should be asking ourselves different questions about how you know you’re delivering good things.”

Ms MacArthur asked the other panellists whether they had explored the potential of social media data. 

“That’s part of the jigsaw, isn’t it?” said Ms Hassall. “What people write on our customer feedback form; what they write on social media; what they are actually doing.”

Ms MacArthur said Essex CC is exploring the impact of better use of data on a range of services, including young people, fostering and dealing with gang crime.

Ricky Morton, digital transformation and smart cities lead at Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, said his work at Kingston upon Thames RBC in 2017 had focused on the common trajectories of people through local public services.

“We started looking at homelessness reduction,” he said. “We did a lot of mapping around the interaction of someone who was going to end up in the [homelessness] service and how they’d got there. Kingston used a lot of third sector providers, so we got to share the data and we mapped it. What became the interesting data point was the point of contact [such as the individual speaking to a GP] and within a couple of points of contact, you could map how that was going to work out. Therefore, you could work out what the early intervention could be and take people out of the system.” 

Ms Tjoa asked if panellists had seen reluctance from residents in sharing their data with councils. 

Cllr Fleming highlighted an example that suggested residents were more likely to share their information on social media than contact the council. He said Los Angeles City Council had in 2015 begun trawling TripAdvisor to spot restaurants the site’s reviewers said had given them food poisoning, rather than relying solely on environmental health teams visiting the eateries or on direct complaints from diners.

Jim McManus, director of public health at Hertfordshire CC, said the county had already started using social media to gather information from young people about their experiences of mental health services. 

“The views of NHS clinicians were starkly different to the experiences of young people,” said Dr McManus.

“The second [example] was where a psychiatrist came up with what she thought was, looking at the data, a cluster of rare childhood cancers in south-west Hertfordshire. We investigated this and found actually it wasn’t, but the benefit of using multiple sources of data from different places, even things like how many people had been at the library borrowing books on cancer, to see what the concerns were, was an example of how it can apply in a small way.”

Dr McManus said Hertfordshire had hired analysts from the London School of Economics to “ransack” social care, health and voluntary sector data to find where social care services could prevent A&E admissions.

“My rule of thumb is the NHS is creating a whole load of avoidable disability that’s ended up in social care,” said Dr McManus. He speculated that if GPs were tasked with additional checks on patients, “100 amputations a year” could be avoided in his area, reducing the need for social care.

Local Government Association research and information manager Juliet Whitworth believed progress would come through applying data, and the technology to collect it, to everyday problems.

“Burnley [BC] has worked with the local university to put temperature sensors in its roads and it only grits when the temperature sensors say [it is necessary], which sounds really simple, but down the line, they could find they need half the size of fleet they are currently using,” said Ms Whitworth. 

“Your ‘holy grail’ of key questions is missing the point. There are loads of questions in local government that need answering and what we should be doing is picking those up and allowing those to be evidence-based. It’s about leadership, about your politicians asking for the evidence before they make decisions, it’s about managers making room to not do the things we always do,” she said.

Dr McManus said it was now generally accepted that “leadership is a set of influencing tools and mechanisms and is a two-way street” but that data scientists had not been trained in that leadership.

“We haven’t created, systematically, organisations with the right imagination to ask those questions, nor have we systematised the kind of competencies we need in the analytic profession,” he said.

Ms MacArthur added: “In the past we may not have had that culture in local government where analysts have felt empowered to suggest to senior people where they should be looking next.”

Cllr Fleming said councils must also address their tendency to “use data in a very linear way”. 

“We have a problem with public health, we look at public health data and try to find a solution,” he said. 

“We’ve got air quality issues in central Sevenoaks and we’ve got no levers to change those. It’s only at those morning and afternoon peaks that we have air quality issues, so we got our parking data, [and tested] what would happen if we did surge-pricing on our car parking spaces,” he said. 

Cllr Fleming said this exemplified the difference “between testing and piloting”. 

“Local government loves piloting,” he said. “It’s hugely expensive, it takes ages, you get a report and it’s normally poorly defined at the beginning and you don’t get the result that you want. Testing is brilliant, and data allows you to do testing. You test really quickly an idea or theory, and we save time and money.” 

Returning to social media data, Dr Roy urged caution in its use: “If you don’t use a scientific method with it, then it’s observational and it’s not credible to suggest that that is a robust insight.”

However, proper use could help councils direct their spending more effectively, he said.

Ms MacArthur said she had seen a great deal of “risk-aversion” about using social media data for this reason. “It’s a Daily Mail headline waiting to happen about council spying on people,” she said.

“Isn’t this just a subset of good old-fashioned research ethics?” Dr McManus asked. He said all data use required a robust research governance framework, which would first protect privacy, but also highlight where the voices of some service users were not being heard.

“The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV published a report which said in London, some people are being turned away from clinics,” he said. 

“Is that because everybody is going into Dean Street, which like going to a boutique hotel, or going to Burrell Street [because] you get free coffee? What is going on there? 

“What worries me is not the articulate, urbane people from Hertfordshire who can get on a train and in 20 minutes be in Dean Street, who are being reached very well by social media and have one set of sexual health needs: your average, white, young, gay male. You need to make sure their sexual health is proper, but what about the 15-year-old who’s not quite sure who they are, who’s experimenting, who can’t get into a sexual health service, who’s looking for information? The danger is we have policy made by who’s shouting loudest, around patterns of services being accessed, and still the population that is not being heard is the population we’re serving least well.”

Mr Morton added relying too much on digital contact risked excluding an entire cohort of people who do not use the technology.

Ms Hassall said councils could use even the very small amounts of data they hold on residents who do not contact the council often to anticipate their needs. 

“We focus on people who contact us all the time, which is a very small section,” she said.

“We record the details of the people who don’t contact us, but we don’t do anything with that. We don’t see that they have any other needs that they haven’t asked us about. We don’t reach out to them.”

Big data and the excitement generated around [it] has meant local government has lost focus a bit and started to worry about something that they don’t need to

Juliet Whitworth, Local Government Association

Cllr Fleming said this could be done by pre-empting residents’ next transaction with the council based on their most recent interaction, in much the same way as Amazon suggests products to customers based on previous purchases.

LGC editor Nick Golding, chairing the discussion, asked the panellists whether chief executives or leaders of councils were convinced data could help them.

Mr Rees gave an example of a council he had visited that was sceptical about use of data to the point of ignoring it entirely.

“The children’s department spent their £18,000 on [fostering] adverts on the back of a bus,” he said. “For £18,000 we could have literally narrowed it down, with the [social media] data that we can get, to probably the 20 or 30 people who are most receptive. We could go around and knock on their doors. We could have a one-to-one conversation with the people who are most likely to foster children in that local area, for a fraction of that £18,000.”

The marketing campaign resulted in no new foster carers being recruited.

Cllr Fleming added that he felt “bigger organisations” such as top-tier councils with social care responsibilities struggled to make time to understand the potential of data.

Dr Roy said there was some confusion among councils about the difference between ‘dark data’ and ‘big data’, and this might be behind some of the reluctance to use data at all.

“Trillions of rows [of data] is not what we are talking about here. We’re talking about three rows of data that have the same geolocation; it’s not the same as big data,” he said.

Ms Whitworth added: “Big data and the excitement generated around [it] has meant local government has lost focus a bit and started to worry about something that they don’t need to. 

“Using existing data that they own well will yield just as much, if not more, and more safely than some of the big data stuff.”


PA Consulting logo

This roundtable discussion was sponsored by PA Consulting. The topic was agreed by LGC and PA Consulting. The report was commissioned and edited by LGC. See for more information.


Comment – Dark data: start a love affair with data

David Rees and Shaibal Roy, head of local government services and head of dark data analytics, PA Consulting

Here at PA Consulting we have been reviewing the opportunity for data analytics to improve local government services in light of recognised demographic and financial pressures. The key message emerging is easy to anticipate: there is so much data we can use, there must be something hidden in there that will make a big difference.

In practical terms, the starting point is to make the most of ‘dark data’ – the abundant data assets authorities already have access to that is not routinely used, or reused. One way to think of dark data is to consider all of the spreadsheets attached to emails that have been used once or twice. Beyond the inbox, think of all of the information about council services that might be measurable in open social media and industry journals. An authority’s dark data is, practically, a limitless source of business value that has never really been looked at. To harness this value, there are three principles to adopt.

Become a commissioner of insights

Authorities can drive desired service improvements by using a simple, structured approach to inspire analytical talent – that starts with senior officers and elected members simply asking each other about the hunches they have always wanted to prove or disprove, or the gut-based decisions that need to be converted to an evidence-based decision. For example, how can an authority make foster carer recruitment marketing more targeted and outcome-based?

Don’t play with data!

The traditional approach of analytics is to focus on meeting management reporting demand. This has its place, but does not maximise the value of data. For example, rather than reporting on housing repair expenditure, is there a deeper question relating to bathroom lock repairs and the possibility of domestic violence?

Don’t do that, start here

We urge authorities to combine their own data curiosity with a focus on outcomes, and empower data and analytics teams to undertake analyses in a highly structured and purposeful way. Commission an insight, and go on that journey. Forget about whether it is ‘big data’ or ‘small data’, it’s not the size of the dataset but the technique and logic used that really matters to solve the problem you have identified. You do not need to be ‘data geeks’, you need something much more difficult that you will surely have: deep experience of your services.

article SUPPLIED BY PA Consulting









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