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Transforming services through data

Source: PSE June/July 15

Maia Beresford, senior researcher at the New Local Government Network, explains how data is the key that can unlock the ability of councils to fully integrate and transform the services they offer local people.

Our concept of what local government does and what it is for is changing rapidly. The return of a majority Conservative government at the last general election means that changes that might otherwise have been seen as temporary – led not by conceptual or philosophical change but a pragmatic response to austerity – will now be permanent. 

Local government was once seen as the delivery of services to reduce and combat a wide range of needs. While aspects of this role are fundamentally unchanged – and the looming crisis in social care is a case in point – our approach to local government has shifted. It is now all about growth. 

Given this, councils are starting to think seriously about how to achieve local growth and what investment is needed in their places to do so. It is obvious to us that digital and data have to be central to any work local government does in terms of growth. This is clearly also the vision of the government with measures outlined in George Osborne’s post-election Budget to support ‘tech clusters’. 

This will be essential not just to attract new tech-driven businesses to a place, but also to help both existing businesses and councils themselves to retain their relevance in an increasingly digital age. 

Councils are starting their data and digital journeys and have come a long way in a relatively short time. The difference we found in their development and approaches just in the one year between our 2014 report on unlocking digital local government and 2015 white paper on the impact of the data revolution on local government was stark. But there is still a long way to go, and as we warned in the latter publication, if councils do not take up these opportunities, they risk making themselves irrelevant. 

Councils make extremely attractive partners for data-driven businesses. They hold an extraordinary amount of data, and thus far have not made the most of what they can do with it. They should open up their data as well as standardising how it is presented (for example, presently, councils are required to publish their contracts, but as there is no standardised format for doing so, collating and analysing this data can be extremely difficult) and the understanding of why. Data should not be presented grudgingly in the name of an old-fashioned understanding of transparency, but shared with an understanding of the importance of doing so not just for the sake of local democratic accountability, nor just for the growth in the economy that data-driven businesses will bring, but also because of the opportunities it affords them to improve their own performance and services. 

In ‘Demystifying Data’, we recommend a number of measures that will help councils to do data better. We recommend a small central unit to support the work of a Local Government Digital Service. Particularly relevant to City Deals would be the idea of regional public data analytical hubs to pool council staff with academics and volunteers to use local data to solve local problems. Learning from the New York Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, these would build on, and bring together, existing data facilities such as Public Health Observatories and hack day methodology, but involve longer projects and features greater collaboration between sectors and public service partners. 

However, what is needed most urgently is a focus on digital skills. Councils must work with local schools and further education providers to ensure that people have the skills that data -based businesses are crying out for. They must also ensure that their own staff have the skills and ability to use the data they hold creatively to enhance and better target local public services. Councils should also ensure that a digitally-skilled citizenry can participate in their place better through their own interaction with openly published data. 

Digital technologies and open data hold enormous challenges for councils. Fully embracing these will require a change in attitude to data and a revolution in the way it is understood and managed. But the change will be coming anyway. Adapting to these technologies will be essential to making sure that local government (and places) thrive in the new paradigm. By attracting investment from data-driven businesses, councils will reap the rewards of local growth. By upskilling their staff, working with digitally savvy volunteers and sharing their data in more open and standardised ways, they will also make their services better targeted and more efficient.

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