Making it Stick: The post-pandemic data imperative

Richard Walker, Partner for Data and Insights, Agilisys, shares his five tips on sustaining and building on improvements in local government data-led decision-making.

In the recent Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s (CDEI) report examining local government’s expanded use of data during the pandemic, several local authorities discussed their use of data during the pandemic, barriers to data-driven innovation, and hopes for the future.

Findings were based largely on a roundtable event where there was real optimism that data was being shared far more easily than ever before. This is partly due to the emergency powers enabled at the height of the pandemic, which allowed easier sharing of data at a local level between health and government organisations.

Concerns for the future of data sharing

Rarely have data leaders at councils across the country found themselves and their teams so intrinsically embedded in strategic and operational decision making. This sharing of information throughout the pandemic led to data being used in more innovative ways than ever before.

However, this optimism was tempered with a cause for concern. As attention turns to the future, the report also described state of apprehension around the table among data leaders and practitioners in local government.  In the future – and without severe and uncontrollable events such as the pandemic to fast-track data sharing and innovation – will the focus on data strong strategy take a back seat? There is a genuine concern that those seeking to innovate with data will find themselves at the back of the funding and sponsorship queue yet again.

Such a scenario would critically impact a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build the foundations for future service delivery models that truly have data and insight at the core. So, what needs to be done to make data sharing stick? Here are five low-cost, high-impact steps that can be taken now to safeguard progress and set a course for even greater influence going forward:

  1. Focus on data and insights

It is important that organisations are focused on finding new ways of working within business-as-usual (BAU) corporate governance. We are working with one local authority that is planning to afford the data and insights team the same footing as the legal, HR and finance teams within the corporate approvals process for strategic decisions. Consulting the insights team will surely enhance decision making in the future and help to deliver better outcomes for citizens.

2. Develop ways of maintaining enhanced sharing

Information Governance (IG) teams have suffered over the years from a reputation as nay-sayers; the people who chase after you in the (now virtual) corridor asking if you have completed your Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA). Flip that reputation on its head and ask IG teams to develop ways of maintaining enhanced sharing. Multiple legislation provides lawful basis for sharing data across public sector agencies. Sponsor their engagement with counterparts at other organisations (many areas have excellent working relationships via multi-agency IG forums). By doing so, historic “no’s” will become “yes’s” or at least, “let me have a look into it”!

3. Openly share the value in data

In a post-pandemic world, investments in data and insights will once again be in competition with higher profile claims to scarce resources. Capture the true value being delivered and ensure this is communicated efficiently, such as sharing stories about value with data to back it up. In a post-pandemic world, pitches for investment will need to be more on point than ever, so there is no time like the present to get started.

4. Create an organisation-wide data and insights community of practice

Harnessing the latent potential of people represents one of the quickest routes to extracting value from data, but anyone in an organisation can be innovative using data. Do not restrict success by thinking that it has to come from IT or performance. Create a data and insights community of practice across the entire organisation. Spread the message far and wide and, if possible, get executive backing. A focus on expediency is key, so find quick wins and high-profile fixes that deliver tangible benefits that will resonate with key stakeholders. The community approach can be a real benefit and lies within the multi-disciplinary team that will intrinsically form as a result.

5. Prioritise data literacy

Backing employees’ data literacy does not mean spending a fortune on organisation-wide, in-person training. The more forward-thinking organisations we have worked with are ringfencing time for people to invest in personal development. There is a huge range of free-to-access training material available online covering everything from the use of data for business decision making to advanced machine learning using cloud platforms. The barrier to getting started has never been lower and links with my previous point of the community of practice. By making the most of time,  for example by putting on lunch and learn style sessions, you’ll find it easier to arrange time given the meteoric rise in virtual working over the last year.

Connecting the dots

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s (CDEI) report highlighted how the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the innovative use of data locally. We’ve seen a wide range of positive data-driven interventions launched or repurposed during the pandemic. However, the progress made over the past 12 months mustn’t be lost once things go back to normal.

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Whilst regulatory requirements must, of course, be strictly adhered to, data is nothing to fear. Connecting the data dots within the organisation and sharing the data between teams can kick-start hugely positive changes in the long term that benefit not only staff but citizens too. Now is the time to build trustworthy governance that earns team members and citizens’ confidence. Following the five easy steps above will help organisations stay focused. Data must not be thought of as a short-term trend, but as a permanent and vital part of every level of the organisation.

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Richard Walker

Partner for Data and Insights at Agilisys

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