Welcome to the third of our blog series in the run up to our Conference, looking at our experiences and how we invest in knowledge, I interviewed Kim Ryley, who is speaking at our London event on the 10 December. Kim Ryley has 35 years experience in local public service, with 14 of these as a Chief Executive in several large City and Unitary Councils. He is a recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace, UK), is a Solace Board Director, and is currently Chair of the Society’s business arm, Solace in Business, as well as the Society’s Lead on International Relations.
Kim, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development?
I think it started early in my career, many years ago, long before the quality management of information became the norm in local government. Originally, I worked in the local education service, in the days before performance league tables for schools. One thing that struck me forcibly then was that there was little attempt to judge how successful the money invested in local schools was in raising the levels of educational attainment. Rather, it was taken as a leap of faith, with no attempt or requirement to produce evidence of benefit. There was a real absence of informed decision making which was hard to defend and seemed irrational to me. I couldn’t condone this, in the light of local data which showed little improvement from a major investment of public money.
More positively, I became aware of us having a surprisingly rich body of information about the services we delivered, which we were not doing much with. We just collected it for others, such as central government, but we didn’t recognise its wider value for us and for other local audiences. All this led me to start thinking that this can’t be right, and there must be real value in this information to enhance the quality of our decision-making, based on evidence of what worked best.
In this context, I saw that the local authority could have an essential role as a local information bureau, collecting, collating, analysing and publishing data from across a range of local public services.
Later, as a Chief Executive, I realised that, to do this, we needed a more sophisticated process for pooling all this information, both corporately across the Council and with other local public services, in order to make something more useful from it. It wasn’t that we lacked necessary information, but rather that we failed to analyse it and to share its key insights and messages with others. From this experience, the need for an evidence based, best practice approach emerged, to better inform my decision-making and that of others across the Council. It’s about making decisions logical, up to date, and defensible when spending public money, and managing information as a valuable resource.
Even when funding for public services was more generous than it is now, there was always the need for rationing, prioritisation, and preferences. The more you can demonstrate a fair, logical and consistent approach to this, the better the decisions are, and the more likely they are to be accepted by the public. It’s about understanding what works, what is having visible impact, and being able to confidently face up to the inevitable public challenges about the use of scarce public resources.
What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?
Our ability to demonstrate transparently that public money is not being wasted, and that it is being applied to the best possible effect in terms of improving the quality of life of local people is becoming more essential, as public sector funding continues to be cut drastically.
Knowing what works, as well as what doesn’t, and why is more crucial than ever, particularly if you are making difficult judgements about acceptable risk of failure. Money is scarce, so we need to be able to target it and understand what our expectations of the results should be. We can’t afford to correct expensive mistakes afterwards, and we need to have a good idea in advance of predictability and reliability of outcome. This makes room for more creativity, if we take sound calculated risks based on evidence. We save money if there is less failure to correct and this saving can be invested in scaling up rapidly what we know works.
When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?
I think there are a lot of myths around knowledge management, with a tendency for people to create barriers and problems that don’t exist in practice, such as the information is too difficult or expensive to collect, it’s not timely enough, or the law prevents me from sharing it with others. These excuses stop people engaging in the challenge positively. Evidence based policy is then seen as burdensome bureaucracy, rather than “how can I make better informed decisions, based on facts I need to know to do so?”.
There are “cultural” barriers also to sharing information within large organisations. Generally, data analysis is the preserve of a small dedicated group of experts, which can mean that it is locked up in separate service silos, where people see their role as protecting their information, rather than sharing it. Knowledge is seen as power, but knowledge shared and analysed on a larger scale is usually much more useful and valuable, especially predictive analytics where there needs to be cross-disciplinary thinking over its meaning and creativity over its application. (Virtual) multi-agency teams help get around these issues and create much richer intelligence about what’s happening in a particular place. For example, in crime and community safety, there is often a wrong presumption that the Data Protection Act means you can’t share sensitive information but, when you test this assumption, the law actually places a duty on you to share it.
There are, however, real issues here about civil liberties that need careful handling and the creation of good data sharing protocols between agencies. It is interesting though to see how private companies, like Facebook and Amazon, use our personal information as a valuable resource. Local authorities have richer and more commercially valuable sources of such data, which could be used, with care, for greater public good or to earn income for investment in public services. We haven’t yet thought how to exploit this rich data effectively.
What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?
Over time, we have got better at knowing where we’ve been, then at knowing where we are now, but we are still poor at predicting future trajectory and rates of progress. The science of predictive analytics is still in its infancy in local government. We really need information about likely future outcomes, not least because social, demographic, and technological change is happening around us more quickly and with a major combined impact, and we need to get ahead of the curve if we are to influence this emerging environment rather than simply react to it.
Most local authorities make significant investment now in community development and economic growth, and are aware that our scarce resources can be spent unwisely, where we haven’t gathered and analysed information which would provide clear evidence of whether such investment is likely to make a visible difference in a reasonable timescale. A northern city I worked in hadn’t done this well in the past, taking only superficial evidence of improvement in socio-economic outcomes as evidence of good progress in improving local quality of life, through the interventions of the City’s public services. But, when these indices of deprivation were compared to changing national norms over a 10 year period, it was found that the gap between the City and the rest of the country had actually widened in this period, despite massive extra investment, because other places had grown their wealth more quickly!
Information analysis needs to be more effectively done. Another local area in which I worked believed it had developed the right recipe for reducing crime levels,as a major cause of public concern, over a 5 year initiative where crime fell at one of the fastest rates in the country. However, with hindsight, it became clear that during this period the local economy had grown significantly and worklessness had fallen. It was not clear to what extent this reduction in poverty and idleness had contributed to the fall in crime! So, we need to know and understand the full picture of what’s going on locally and nationally and what will be the effect of shifting different levers of change, both individually and in combination. This is where local public services need to be in the future.
Funding for local government in the future will be much more dependent on growth in the local economy of the council’s area. A County Council I worked for looked at such local growth potential recently in this way for the first time, and discovered that much of its investment to support local businesses went into propping up “falling stars” that were still important local employers, but had little or no growth potential for the future, rather than in those firms likely to grow and create new jobs quickly. The Council also found that it was large local supermarkets that contributed most to its business rates and their growth, yet the Council’s nimbyist planning policies rejected further developments of this kind! Not being aware fully of the implications of such decisions can have significant unintended consequences!
So, it’s not simply about better performance information on service delivery – you want also to understand the deeper dynamics of the local community and its economy, based on an ability to quickly aggregate relevant information and identify changing trends early. The place shaping role of local councils is about growing the economy and creating greater civil resilience, to improve or at least maintain quality of life in a turbulent and unpredictable world. Understanding that world and your relationship to it as a place is vital for local councils, even though their intelligence resources are very small.
A good example of this kind of learning and insight came during a period of unprecedented flooding which hit a northern city where I was the council’s chief executive a few years ago. We understandably needed to understand quickly the effects of that emergency on the functioning of the city and the life of its residents and businesses. Many parts of the city were unsafe to live in temporarily, and the social fabric can fray quickly when children can’t go to school, so parents can’t go to work, and families can’t fend for themselves. So, we designed a triage system to prioritise and focus our relief efforts on those who needed help most. I reallocated 1,000 council staff from non-urgent work, to visit and survey every flooded property, to determine what help was needed. This allowed us to quickly to make sensible decisions, based on each household’s particular needs.
The database we built up this way, about who was most vulnerable, was so valuable that we continued to add to and maintain it after the emergency was over. This demonstrated the value of the granularity of such frontline information about our residents, and the ability to build this up into a complete picture. Previously, we had bits of this jigsaw, on health, social care needs, and so on, but we hadn’t put this together in one place and understood its applied value. Lack of data often isn’t the real problem, it’s the lack of processed information and intelligence. Real knowledge comes from processing raw data, to give a deeper understanding of local issues and what works in tackling them.
Looking back at how our understanding of what makes good schools has changed, and is still hotly debated, the information we currently use on academic performance all seeks to add value in terms of informed decision-making, not least for parents choosing a school for their child. This is a good example of “active” information. But, interestingly, when you talk to parents about this, they emphasise their wish for a school where their child will be happy, (rather than one where they are challenged academically)! We often make judgements about what constitutes “useful” information, but when we explore this more fully with information users, we uncover other, deeper issues about how decisions are made!
How do we make sound decisions when we are not clear about what our minimum data requirement for this is? Gathering more (unnecessary) information takes time and money, which can delay or complicate decision-making. So, what’s the balancing point of just enough, timely and relevant information to be confident about the sound quality of the decision that needs to be taken? We often give these key questions inadequate thought!
How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in five years’ time?
The key to the future will be in sharing information more effectively and in the skilled use of “big data”, which recognises the value of evidence of what is happening in real-time and of detailed knowledge of the underlying trends and patterns. We won’t have the money to dramatically grow our research capacity, but we can do much more with what we’ve got if we ask the right questions and seek the right answers! We need a framework which directs research in this way, to meet real need to know on a practical, rather than a theoretical, level.
We need also to learn from other places that are wrestling with similar social problems and are finding different viable solutions. We need wider access to such research and to offer our own learning in return. Currently, many of those who need this simply don’t know what’s already out there or how to access it. In comparative studies with North America and Australasia, we are starting to see common themes emerging in the management and leadership of major changes in public services in the 21st Century. This allows us to identify transferable solutions and tap into wider seams of creative thinking.
The beauty of our digital technology is that such sharing has never been easier, if the information is ordered and indexed to promote this. But, I believe that human beings do best through learning by doing, so we also need to find reciprocal ways to share our experts, and to engage in joint projects, as well as to learn from each others mistakes before we repeat them ourselves!
If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?
What’s curious to me is why people do not make more use of knowledge services and products, and why some of these don’t seem to hit the mark in terms of having utility value for decision makers. Is it simply bad design? Some knowledge databases seem useful for signposting you to other more useful information, but nothing else.
It seems often that nothing is as good as seeking out the right experts directly and talking to them, to learn at first hand. It seems that just access to data is not as valuable as access to the expertise in its interpretation! But, how do we make it easier to find such experts and to get their valuable attention? Perhaps we need well-managed systems of reciprocal “time banking”, where we all have something of value to “trade” in terms of what we know. This could be a valuable and less costly way to share scarce resources.
Communities of practice can also have a more valuable role if they promote “active” information which is conveyed in a timely way directly to those likely to see it as valuable, rather than simply making it “passively” available should you choose to look for it. The difference in approach (and the likely benefit) is huge, if you say “I am going to seek you out, understand your needs, and help you work with the processed information I will put before you”. To do this, you must be able to understand your audience and their likely information needs well.
We need to be much better also at the use of “soft” data,which is often more valuable than hard data alone, even though it is more complex and subjective. But, we live in a world where perception can be everything and understanding how people think and react is often crucial to making effective changes in social attitudes and behaviours. This is a science in which we are not yet expert practitioners! But this will need to change quickly, if we are to keep pace with the big drivers of demographic, social, environmental and technological change already at work around us.
If you would like to hear Kim speak about his career and experience sign up to our free conference in December here.