Strategy is vital if we are to deal with the public sector data tsunami

Data tsunami discussion

Written by Phil Ruston, Local Government Lead at Agilisys

During discussions at the recent Digital Leaders Cities Workshop, it’s clear that local government is facing a tsunami of data. The digital revolution, driven by technology such as Internet of Things (IoT), has resulted in more data being made available to councils than ever before, which is both a massive opportunity and a huge challenge.

On the plus side, there’s an opportunity to drive better services and therefore improved outcomes, shift from reactive to proactive activity and drive operational efficiencies. At the same time, there’s a huge challenge around how you manage and utilise the vast quantity of data constantly being captured.

One of the delegates at the Digital Leaders event, which was hosted by Wigan Council, commented that the biggest issue faced at their council was understanding the data. “We can get thousands of data points, but can’t actually do anything with them, other than see them on a dashboard,” they said.

This is a common theme that we often hear when working with councils. The risk is not the implementation of technology, but rather failing to implement technology correctly so that available data is unusable. With that in mind, how do we feed data in and get better results out?

The answer exists in developing a robust and effective data management and transformation strategy, which is about more than IT. Tech analyst Gartner sums it up well: rather than reacting to wider organisational change, CIOs must position information and technology at the heart of the overall business strategy.

Building the business case

It was clear from the Workshops in Wigan that those organisations leading change are bringing together multiple sources of information. This goes beyond the four walls of the authority to include data from other local organisations, including those in education and the third sector. While this helps bring data together to enable prevention rather than intervention, it can be tough to develop a strong enough business case needed to underpin any strategy.

Consensus amongst delegates was that there’s a need to focus on outcomes, rather than technology, when building a business case. Rather than talking about how data saves money, or IoT gives us this data, we need to be focusing on behavioural change. What are the improved outcomes? How will it improve service delivery and drive efficiencies? The value comes when you use the data and the information. Or, better still, automatically integrate data into service delivery.

Five tips to help build a data management strategy
  1. Integrates information in actionable events to drive service process improvement
  2. Focus on outcomes, not technology
  3. Take a multi-stakeholder approach
  4. Change culture is vitally important to ongoing success
  5. Embrace collaboration with outside organisations

This leads us nicely onto questions around problem solving. No council in the country needs a network of sensors to tell us what we already know, and if there’s no clear data strategy focusing on what needs to be achieved, the danger with IoT is that you can quickly get swamped with data and never get anywhere.

Therefore, there’s a clear need to identify the problems that need to be solved (or those you would like to solve) before putting the tech in place. Do this and there will be real delivery behind it.

“Our remit is to move from being a reactive council to a proactive one,” one delegate told us in Wigan. “Therefore, we are trying to keep the services focussed on tactical improvements and where real citizen outcomes can be improved the most.”

It was interesting talking to those present at the Digital Leaders event in Wigan to hear how the power of collaboration is paying dividends for some authorities. Newcastle, for example, is enjoying some great success through its Urban Observatory, a Newcastle University led project gathering over 50 data types on everything from flooding to air pollution, traffic flows and even the behaviour of bees so that informed decisions can be made. This project allows different data sets to be overlaid and intertwined, enabling a deeper understanding of behaviour.

If you don’t change the culture, you won’t make the change

The example of collaboration in Newcastle leads us nicely onto another key point in the development of a successful strategy – the need to involve multiple stakeholders and drive a culture of change.

Leaders at the Workshop in Wigan highlighted how they aren’t prepared to wait for their IT function to offer new solutions. Rather, they enable multi-disciplinary teams to identify where new technologies can enable better outcomes for citizens through more effective service design.

Interestingly, it was also agreed during discussions that organisational agility is a driving force behind transformation success – by giving mobile tools to people whose jobs involve remote working, multiple benefits can be delivered to service users.

This highlights how the concept of a “strategy fit for the digital age” is an important step forward from the closed idea of a “digital strategy”, because it allows space for a broader view that encompasses more people at different levels within an organisation, as well as non-technology factors.

Change leaders must shape the overall strategy by placing particular emphasis on how digital technologies are continually changing society, and what opportunities this presents for local government. It’s about senior leaders recognising and understanding the art of the possible, starting with the culture of the organisation. It’s about moving to a culture that can keep pace with constant change, where new ways of working and plenty of collaboration are energising rather than frightening. Above all else, it’s about bringing people on the journey with you, because delivering a strategy fit for the digital age is not something a technology leader can do in isolation.

To conclude, on the one hand we have access to more data than ever before, providing the opportunity to drive proactive service provision and improve citizen outcomes. On the other there’s a danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data available, especially if it remains unstructured. The key to unlocking the true potential of data and information is a data management strategy that integrates this information in actionable events and drives service process improvement. That’s the first and most important step in dealing with the data tsunami.

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