Beyond Digital: Developing Your Data Strategy


Wednesday, September 9th 2015
Author: Neil Wholey, Director of Insight

Over the last decade we have learnt that there is no digital nirvana when delivering public services. Instead it’s a constant cycle of test, learn, implement and test again. A key part of this is the intelligent use of data. Any digital strategy based on simply transferring a physical service to being “digital by default” is stuck in 1999. This was the year that the Office of the e-Envoy set the objective of making “all Government services available electronically and in a customer focused way by 2005”. As we pass the 10 year anniversary of apparently meeting that deadline with the technology of the time, we need to draw on the lessons learned and ensure data is at the heart of any on-going digital strategy. Our planned September Ideas Exchange meeting, for which places are still available, looks at this issue in more depth and will help those attending draw up their own strategy.

As the Ashley Madison hack showed not all services are necessarily better digital by default. It also showed that the use of data is a key part of service delivery. Without it you have a glossy website and not much more. Our planned September Ideas Exchange session addresses this challenge, building on themes in the Policy Exchange’s report “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” which states that “local authorities could save up to £10billion by 2020 through smarter and more collaborative use of technology and data.” We will be looking at what those savings could be and focusing in on how public sector bodies can design an effective data strategy that moves them beyond their possibly existing narrow concept of digital services.

The report focuses on three key areas where councils could save money and better coordinate their services: using data to predict and prevent fraud, sharing data between neighbouring councils and phasing out costly bespoke IT systems. All three are areas that Westminster City Council has been working on with its neighbouring councils - Hammersmith and Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The councils recognise the power of data and have been working for a number of years to maximise its usefulness. We will be discussing some of our thoughts about Westminster City Council’s approach with speakers from the Policy Exchange, GLA and the Shared ICT Service for Kingston and Sutton to offer a broader perspective.

In being involved in this work within Westminster it is clear to me that there is huge potential in the better use of data. This does go beyond customer insight and digital transactional services into something deeper. The commercial sector has shown that data can be modelled to predict and encourage certain behaviours. Our lives and actions are increasingly being analysed and reacted to on the basis of our data footprint rather than face-to-face interactions. This approach is possible in the public sector too. I think there are three key challenges in truly going beyond digital to develop stronger data strategies.

  1. Establishing stable data assets: My unscientific estimate is that about 90% of your time working with data is spent cleaning it up and getting it fit for analysis. This does not just include time spent correctly labelling and checking data quality. Part of this time is spent working with others to establish common data standards, data sharing protocols and addressing issues of confidentiality and Data Protection. I think stability of these data assets is vital. It has to be clear from the offset what you plan to use the data for and ensure not only that this is a correct usage under Data Protection law but also that the organisation is comfortable with the use of the data in this way. You also have to ensure that the data will still be collected in the future. At a national level changes in Government policy have resulted in changes in local datasets. For example, removing child benefit from higher earning families has resulted in less information about those families being recorded. A data strategy has to ensure that services collecting administrative data understand their responsibilities if the data is used elsewhere.
  2. Ensure analysis is transparent and replicable: With stable data assets the process for analysing and using that data should follow similar principles. All members of the project team should be able to understand the purpose of the data analysis, broadly how it was done and be able to act on the findings. It would be rare for any project to be a one-off and instead, as with digital services more generally, it should be a constant cycle of test, learn, implement and test again. This is aided by establishing analysis products that feed off of changes in data, rather than a manual analysis each time.
  3. Don’t limit the impact of data to transactional digital services Some of the biggest service challenges the public sector face are not those that can be easily done digital by default. Digital services touch on issues such as the future of adult social care, protecting vulnerable children and housing shortages, but will never be able to replace the personal touch. The better use of data can help us to target those most in need with the diminishing resources the public sector has. Data can help improve efficiency and evaluate the impact of interventions to ensure that greater value for money is achieved. This is recognised by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in some of their most transformational projects, but it often does not reach down to other public services that can still be transfixed by the GDS’s approach in designing websites.

There are still huge financial savings by going “digital by default” and encouraging the public to use digital services. At Westco we regularly see the opportunities in discussions with our clients, and it is an on-going challenge within Westminster City Council to stay constantly on top of our game. Capitalising on emerging trends is part of the role of data in any digital strategy. Data can challenge our own preconceptions of the people we serve and we can swiftly change our strategies to match. The digital strategy is often the most responsive to change but the best organisations will be adapting their underlying corporate strategy as well. The opportunity is now to move beyond the digital debate onto one based on data. After 16 years of trying we increasingly have responsive digital services and we now have the increased drive to go faster from the financial pressures we face. We now have to use data to help us establish a clear road map on where the public sector is going and I doubt we have much time to do it.

Neil Wholey

Director of Insight, Westco


Westco will be hosting an Ideas Exchange on the topic of Developing your data strategy through an interactive workshop with Policy Exchange on 17th September. Spaces are limited but you can still RSVP here.