Data as a Critical Resource

Warning: the data revolution requires radical thinking.

Let’s start this post honestly:  changing the way we use data isn’t always easy. But, the public sector has a genuinely astonishing opportunity to use data in an open, transparent and ethical way to the great benefit of the citizens and all our communities.

Data has gone from being a scarce and complex commodity to being abundant and easy to use. But, none of this matters if we can’t build trust and openness so people know their data is being managed ethically and the benefits are being distributed fairly.

Gatekeepers of public sector data have a significant responsibility to:

  • Develop frameworks that support this mission.
  • Provide quality governance that instills trust and understanding.
  • Develop a shared language that brings it all together.

Data and people – the heart and lungs… and the rest.

We know that the modern workplace is most efficient and productive when we put our people at the heart of it. But, if people are the heart of our organisations, then data is the lungs … and the central nervous system, the lymphatic system, the blood vessels and the immune system. You get the point – it’s really important.

Good data is fundamental to good decision making. Using data intelligently allows our people to work smarter, not harder. Sharing data improves trust and understanding between public sector organisations and the public.

The public oversight of data is now commonplace, and it helps us all understand the activity of a public sector organisation, the accountability within it and the way that public funds are being spent.

By focusing on user needs we can make sure data is relevant and easy to understand. If we consider data, technology and digital to all interlock, at the centre of that relationship should be community. This includes both the public and public sector workers – after all, civil servants are users too.

Trust and accountability.

If we’re putting people, data, and community at the centre of any digital strategy, then we’ll quickly realise that we need to include trust and accountability as an umbrella over them all.

The potential benefits of data sharing are widespread. From the opportunities for innovation, efficiency and effectiveness, to economic growth, and productivity. It’s an incredible opportunity. But, in order for us to take advantage, we need to be sure that we can prove we’re handling data correctly.

Whether you’re embarking on a new data revolution, or you’re already taking steps to change the way you use data – it’s never too early to consider governance. The quality of your governance will greatly affect the impact of any data-centric project. Poor data or poor data handling will cost you greatly – both financially and reputationally.

At an organisational level, you need a set of defined roles, processes and policies. At an individual level, you need proper training and clear lines of accountability. Getting your own house in order will also help with processing new data and ensure you’re compliant. However, don’t underestimate the time and resources this will take. You’ll need buy-in from across the organisation and a realistic plan of action.

Data leadership.

How many times have you heard a senior leader quip about being a ‘dinosaur’, finding technology ‘a bit baffling’ or claiming coquettishly that they ‘don’t even know how to turn a computer on’?

Although in the public sector we are lucky to have many, many incredible leaders, there are still people in senior positions that think this sort of irresponsible disinterest in emerging (and established) technology is acceptable.

It is not.

Leaders, whether directly or indirectly responsible for digital, data and technology – and even those who aren’t – have a responsibility to understand and support the digital agenda. There is simply no acceptable excuse not to. It’s not cute and it’s not endearing. It’s irresponsible and dangerous and it undermines the work of thousands of people.

Invite and invest.

As well as making sure that senior leaders support and understand data literacy, this is equally important within the workforce.

There is a tendency to assume that extensive external recruitment drives are necessary to address the data skills gap. But, plans should also be made to offer the existing workforce the opportunities to develop data literacy skills.

There are lots of roles that could easily transition into data specialist roles. By utilising the existing skill sets of your workforce, you’ll also retain corporate memory – something that can be underestimated in times of significant change.

Impact, presence and partnership.

We’re all starting to understand the significant power and potential of data sharing. We know that intelligent data sharing can have far-reaching impact. We are learning how good data can improve design, efficiency and outcomes of services. But, it’s not all plain sailing.

Interoperability issues can be barriers to data links. No matter what the appetite for improved uses of data,  incompatible and legacy systems can stand in our way. To overcome these issues we need clear and realistic strategies. We also need to realise that we might not be able to achieve everything we wish to as quickly as we’d like.

Creating an infrastructure that allows data sharing requires leadership and collaboration. There are a lot of things that need to be in place to make these projects possible and these ambitions achievable. We need to be ready to think radically, challenge the status quo, put data and people at the heart and develop stringent, robust governance – from top to bottom.

No one said it would be easy (and if they did, they were woefully misguided), but the results can genuinely change the way we live for the better. And that’s got to be worth it.

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Post by Carrie Kleiner

Carrie Kleiner was instrumental in taking GOV.UK's blogging platform from its infancy through to being the most established government blogging platform in the world; home to over 100 blogs and thousands of contributors. Carrie wrote Government Digital Service's first editorial strategy and went on to become the Head of Content and Editor-in-Chief at UK Parliament - writing their first ever content strategy and editorial direction.

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