Local leaders must 'grasp the nettle' in big data analytics, says Socitm

Written by Rebecca Hill on 13 June 2016 in News

The creation of regional mayors in England could be an opportunity for big data projects, and local authority leaders should be at the forefront, according to Socitm.

In a briefing paper published on 12 June, the representative body for IT managers said there was huge potential for big data analytics to transform the provision of public services.

Soctim said that, although there were a range problems associated with a push to make better use of big data, a major challenge would be local leaders' “willingness to grasp the nettle” and embrace big data.

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The briefing note sets out ways to use big data as a resource, from using the new data in the same form it is gathered to generating more sophisticated measures by combining datasets, as well as some best practice case studies.

It cites the City of New York Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics as an example of a city region taking the opportunities offered by big data, for instance through predictions of fire risk and early intervention.

Socitm said that the creation of elected mayors in cities in England through the government’s devolution deals offer a similar opportunity, and could be used to create new bodies that try out different ideas.

“Local authorities that lead the way in digital services provision and service redesign are, almost inevitably, getting into big data projects and practices,” Socitm said.

It said that, with funding pressures and the rate of change in local government, it is likely that local authorities will want to be confident of the benefits of using big data before they invest in them, acknowledging that it is hard to “act first and justify second”.

However, Socitm added that the results of a series of pilots being carried out by innovation agency Nesta that will look at the practicalities and potential business cases for creating data analytics offices for individual local authorities or regions, won’t be out for some time.

Because of this, Socitm urged local authority leaders to take action now.

“This is an opportunity for the decision to be made on high-level, strategic grounds via leadership, rather than on lower-level managerial value for money grounds,” the report said.

“An organisation’s leadership can simply decide that an office for data analytics or something similar will be established as part of their vision for the future.

“Leadership decision-making to support vision and principles isn’t about value for money alone.”

A further obstacle in the drive to use big data in the public sector is the lack of digital skills in the UK workforce – an issue emphasised by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report into digital skills, published today.

The MPs found that 12.6 million adults lack basic digital skills and only 35% of computer teachers in schools have a relevant degree.

Moreover, two-thirds of so-called datavore companies told the committee they had struggled to fill a vacancy in the past year, while 93% of tech companies said the digital skills gap was affecting their commercial operations.

Socitm's report said that a shortage of people with relevant skills could be “even worse” for local public sector employers, “severely limiting their ability to build the necessary business capabilities in-house”.

It added that this could lead to more companies setting themselves up as outsourcers, but that this would bring about further issues.

“The pragmatic alternative is to (re-)train existing employees,” Socitm said.

But there are also downsides involved in this that need to be prepared for, it added. First, employees' new skills will be very marketable, and if they leave, the sector would lose their knowledge.

Second, employees that do stay in the public sector will focus on digital roles, meaning their original job was left vacant - meaning a gain to one part of the council would be a loss to another area of in-house work.

Socitm said that it would be issuing a survey on digital skills and organisational capabilities building to better understand these challenges in the coming months.

Image credit: Flickr - Ketzirah Lesser & Art Dauglis

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