Whitehall urged to create £4m fund to boost councils’ use of data

The government should encourage councils to increase their use of data through a £4m fund to partner data scientists with councils and make data analysis a requirement of devolution deals, according to a report.

Embedding data scientists in councils would help them make the best use of their data – Photo credit: PA

In its report, Wise Council, the innovation agency and think tank Nesta called on the Government Digital Service and the Department for Communities and Local Government to make a bigger commitment to data-sharing in local government.

Local authorities, it said, sit in “the middle of a web of information”, from social care to waste collection, council tax to planning applications, and should make much better use of it.

This would improve services by making them more targeted and allowing councils to allocate resources to the right place and at the right time, ensuring they have the biggest impact while taking the pressure off over-stretched areas.

“The need to do this has scarcely been greater,” the report said. “Local government is entering its seventh year of austerity, with spending cuts set to continue until 2020 at the earliest. The central government grant is forecast to be reduced by 54% between 2015 and 2020, to just £5.4bn.”

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Bringing government data to life

The report, written by Nesta policy researcher Tom Symons, emphasised that data would not be a “simple or complete solution” to the problems faced by councils, but that it was one of many tools that they should use.

It makes a series of recommendations, stressing that councils need support from central government to ensure they integrate and analyse the data effectively.

The first of these is that GDS and DCLG should create a programme to embed data scientists and analysts in front-line local government teams that will benefit most from better use of data, such as social care.

The scheme would allow the scientists to work with staff to identify problems that can be solved with data and help lead culture change across councils to demonstrate the tangible benefits of increased use of data.

“Councils are sitting on a treasure trove of potential insights on the communities in which they operate,” Symons said in a statement. “Embedding experts within these councils could be the catalyst for the culture change we need to see if they are to stay one step ahead of budget cuts and meet people’s evolving needs.”

The report estimates that the scheme would require around £4m a year, which it said should come from central government, describing it as a “modest outlay” from the £450m awarded to GDS in last year’s spending review.

This budget would include funding for 50 data scientists to work in pairs across 25 councils, with five senior data scientists to oversee the scheme, as well as money for administration and evaluation. The report added that some of the money should come from local authorities to ensure a commitment on their side.

Further recommendations are for the Local Government Association – a research partner in the project – to develop a knowledge transfer scheme for councils that are carrying out data-sharing projects, and for all local authorities to build systematic evaluation into any data led innovation they do.

The report also calls for city regions bidding for devolved powers to be required to set up an Office for Data Analytics – something that Nesta is currently piloting in London, the North East and Sheffield.

The aim of the offices is to ensure that all relevant data is properly linked and integrated across councils, especially with the creation of the Local Enterprise Partnerships and combined authorities that could lead to data being more disparately spread across regions.

Nesta also called for a city data exchange, to be supported by central government, which will allow local government data to be associated with datasets held outside government, by charities, universities, businesses or citizens.

“Given the central importance of data to enabling public sector reform, this is an idea which is worthy of being trialled in at least one UK city,” the report stated.

Tackling ingrained cultures

The report also issues a set of recommendations for councils when embarking on data-led projects, which have been informed by eight case studies in the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Camden, Kent, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Suffolk.

The most important of these is to ensure that there is senior buy-in for the work, with all of the case study councils saying this had been vital to their work because it indicated endorsement from the main decision-makers and helped persuade those who are sceptical of the approach.

Many of the councils also found that there was a lack of skills within the council, which the report said often meant challenging working cultures and attitudes, including after the project had finished to encourage people to use the data once it had been made open.

“Using data to inform decision-making can be a bigger shift than it seems at first – decision-making in organisations is highly culturally ingrained,” the report stated.

“Basing decisions on intuition, accumulated experience or even subconscious biases is a hard habit to shake. While we would not advocate entirely data-driven decision-making, the case studies found that data-informed decision-making can be valuable.”

Councils should also be realistic about the financial and staff resources required for the work – ensuring that information governance requirements are properly met will require expert advice and scrutiny – and be prepared to deal with poor quality data that lack common data standards.

In addition, the report said that it may not be possible to make a robust business case for the work because the evidence of the benefits of data-sharing are not yet available, which makes data-sharing plans a harder sell in times of austerity.

Although the report said that there was no local context that meant the case studies could not be replicated elsewhere, there were some specific features that might be less replicable. These included gaining one-off investments from the sale of assets or a central government funds, and trying to start projects in areas where there is not a locally thriving community of developers to help work on the data.


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