Has the time finally arrived for data to drive transformation?

In the final blog of this exclusive series, GlobalData's Rob Anderson asks if 2019 could be the year for the public sector to truly embrace Big Data


Has the time finally arrived for data to drive transformation?

In his final blog post in the series about digital transformation in government, Rob Anderson, Principal Analyst for Central Government in the GlobalData Public Sector team looks at how changing attitudes to the collection and use of data can accelerate the delivery of efficient public services. 

We’ve probably all heard it before; predictions that next year will be the year that Big Data finally comes of age and is the catalyst for accelerated transformation programmes. The disappointment when those forecasts don’t come to fruition amongst the digital tech community is palpable. So why do I think that 2019 will be any different?

Let’s firstly take stock of what data assets central government has. I broadly categorise it into three key types of information, all of which are currently collected and stored, probably multiple times, by government agencies providing them with the richest of datasets on the make-up of the UK and its people.

  • Firstly there is personal data about citizens pertaining to their health, wealth and legal standing; it’s vitally important in the design of public services, but also the most sensitive.
  • Secondly, service usage information – the CRM of government if you will – which describes how citizens interact with government.
  • The third category is non-personal data but pertains to the geography of the UK, the public estate and all the physical assets that government owns, manages, or at least tracks.

To meet the needs of citizens today in the most efficient manner, all three types of data must be harnessed to ensure that the right services are delivered to the right people in the right way and at the right time. Analysing in detail in a holistic way how people want to access and consume government information and services can surely only lead to improvements in those services and thus a more effective civil service. Insight into customer behaviour has driven great advancements for businesses in other sectors, such as retail, entertainment and financial services; should government be any different?

And yet turning data into insight still isn’t happening consistently. Civica’s recent survey of central government officials revealed that while 45% believe unlocking the value of that data is key to their department’s digital journey, almost as many (43%) don’t think their organisation is using that data to its full potential with the figure increasing to 52% across wider government. As discussed in preceding blogs, a lack of key technology skills within the civil service and continued budget constraints are inhibitors to progress, particularly when exploring innovative data analysis techniques.

The structure of central government with departments operating autonomously doesn’t help, and although cross-agency data sharing has was facilitated by the 2017 Digital Economy Act, a culture of risk aversion still pervades. This has long been a barrier to breaking down the silos of government (and identified as such by over half the respondents in Civica’s survey). When it comes to the management of sensitive personal data, the fear of data leaks accentuates cautious behaviours. Utilising data that if exposed could identify and adversely affect individuals can lead to paralysis of decision making by officials.

The ethics of analysing and connecting different aspects of individuals’ interactions with government also causes concern, particularly when the popular press and pressure groups such as Change.org and 38 degrees are quick to focus in on anything that could be seen as Big Brother type activities. But building on that trust with citizens is an all important step, especially as a recent Civica survey1 found that only 11% of the UK public completely trust their local authority or the government to handle their data.

This is clearly recognised by government as an issue and the Centre for Data Ethics set up by DCMS is putting together a strategy that will seek to reassure the public that the government can be trusted to gather, hold and protect data and use it for the benefit of all without compromising privacy.

Nonetheless, the availability of secure and robust solutions is now widespread in the market, and partnering with the right providers could enable public sector bodies to more quickly unlock the potential of their data and become transformative through insight-fuelled decision making.

All the elements are thus in place to kick-on with transformation using data to better inform the optimum direction of travel. Other governments around the world are reaping the benefits of better use of data. Estonia is widely quoted as an exemplar, and whilst acknowledging that it is a newer democracy than the UK with fewer historical millstones, it is addressing citizen demands at pace, built on a solid data architecture. Australia and Denmark are other countries where embracing open data and collaborating with other sectors is paying dividends. In the UK, a rich seam of data is there, a wealth of organisations with experience in supporting transformation in other sectors are willing to help and the acknowledgement within the civil service of the value of data is maturing.

So, let 2019 be the year that Big Data does come of age in the public sector. May government CDIOs be freed from the shackles of poor data analysis, and may transformation directors be bold enough to partner with the right suppliers to derive more value from that data. But most of all, may we all as UK citizens, rejoice in better services facilitated by government understanding us more clearly.


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