From data to intelligence and improvement – what cutting edge councils are doing in the UK

Group of workers having a meeting

By Steven McGinty

Data has the potential to revolutionise the delivery of local services. Just like the private sector – where organisations such as Amazon and Facebook have leveraged user data – local councils have the opportunity to reap significant benefits from analysing their vast silos of data. Improving efficiencies, increasing levels of transparency, and providing services which better meet people’s needs, are just some of the potential benefits.

Although many councils are still at the early stages of utilising their data, some are innovating and introducing successful data initiatives.

Wise Councils

In November 2016, the charity NESTA published a report highlighting the most ‘pioneering’ uses of data in local government. The report emphasised that most local services would benefit from data analysis and that a ‘problem-oriented’ approach is required to generate insights that have an impact on services. The case studies included:

Kent County Council

Kent County Council (KCC), alongside Kent’s seven Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), have created the Kent Integrated Dataset (KID) – one of the largest health and care databases in the UK, covering the records of 1.5 million people. The core requirement of the dataset was to link data from multiple sources to a particular individual, i.e. that information held about a person in hospital, should also be linked to records held by other public bodies such as GPs or the police.

This integrated dataset has enabled the council to run sophisticated data analysis, helping them to evaluate the effectiveness of services and to inform decisions on where to locate services. For example, Kent’s Public Health team investigated the impact of home safety visits by Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) on attendances at accident and emergency services (A&E). The data suggested that home safety visits did not have a significant impact on an individual’s attendance at A&E.

Leeds City Council

Leeds City Council have focused their efforts on supporting open innovation – the concept that good ideas may come from outside an organisation. This involved the initiatives:

  • Data Mill North (DMN) – this collaborative project between the city council and private sector is the city’s open data portal (growing from 50 datasets in 2014 to over 300 data sets, in over 40 different organisations). To encourage a culture change, Leeds City Council introduced an ‘open by default’ policy in November 2015, requiring all employees to make data available to the public. A number of products have been developed from data published on DMN, including, which provides local information online, such as hospital locations, road accidents, and incidents of crime.
  • Innovation Labs – the city has introduced a series of events that bring together local developers and ‘civic enthusiasts’ to tackle public policy problems. Leeds City Council has also provided funding, allowing some ideas to be developed into prototypes. For example, the waste innovation lab created the app, Leeds Bins, which informs residents which days their bins should be put out for collection.

Newcastle City Council

Newcastle City Council have taken a data-led approach to the redesign of their children’s services. The Family Insights Programme (FIP) used data analysis to better understand the demand and expenditure patterns in the children’s social care system. Its aim was to use this insight to support the redesign of services and to reduce the city’s high re-referrals and the number of children becoming looked-after.

The FIP uses data in three different ways:

  • Grouping families by need – The council have undertaken cluster analysis to identify common grouping of concerning behaviours, such as a child’s challenging behaviour or risk of physical abuse. When a child is referred to long term social work, senior social workers analyse the concerning behaviours of the case, and then make a referral to a specialist social work unit. Since introducing this data-led approach, social work units have been organised based on needs and concerning behaviours. This has resulted in social workers becoming specialists in supporting particular needs and behaviours, providing greater expertise in the management of cases.
  • Embedding data analysts – Each social work unit has an embedded data analyst, who works alongside social workers. Their role is to test what works, as well as providing insights into common patterns for families.
  • Enabling intelligent case management – Social workers have access to ChildSat, a tool which social workers use to help manage their cases. It also has the capability to monitor the performance of individual social work units.

Investing in data

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, has suggested that councils need support from central government if they are to accelerate their use of data. He’s suggested that £4 million – just £1% of the Government Digital Service (GDS) budget – is spent on pilot schemes to embed data specialists into councils.

Mr Symons has also proposed that all combined authorities should develop Offices of Data Analytics, to support data analysis across counties. Over the past few months, Nesta has been working on this idea with the Greater London Authority, and a number of London boroughs, to tackle the problem of unlicensed HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). Early insights highlight that data analytics could be used to show that new services would provide value for money.

Final thoughts  

After successive years of cuts, there has never been a greater need for adopting a data-led approach. Although there are undoubtedly challenges in using council data – including changing a culture where data sharing is not the norm, and data protection – the above examples highlight that overcoming these challenges is achievable, and that data analysis can be used to bring benefits to local councils.

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Slow by default: achieving digital transformation in the complex world of local government

City Hall, London

By Steven McGinty

Bringing local government into the 21st century is fraught with well documented challenges. In 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) carried out a survey into local government leaders’ views on digital transformation. The research identified six key barriers to digital adoption:

  • Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure
  • Lack of development funds
  • Unwillingness to change / non-cooperation of colleagues
  • Lack of in-house digital skills
  • Culturally uncomfortable for the organisation
  • Supplier inflexibility

However, there have been signs we are heading in the right direction. LocalGov Digital, a network of digital practitioners in local government, published a common approach for delivering services – an issue we discussed on our blog in June. Their hope is that this new standard (known as the Local Government Digital Service Standard) will support the sharing of good practice and lead to better public services.

In addition, many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.  For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.

Over the past year, commentators have provided their views on what’s holding back digital transformation in local government. Below we’ve highlighted some of these.

Digital inclusion

At a TechUK event in November, Labour councillor for Harrow Council, Niraj Dattani, argued that councils should ‘aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later’.

He suggested that if local government focused too much on the 15% of people who can’t access services, then, ultimately, nobody will have access to better services. In his view:

It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, supported this view, and although he acknowledges there are legitimate digital exclusion concerns, he argued this should not limit innovation. In his blog article, ‘Scaling digital change for better public services — reflections on UK local government digital strategies’,  Mr Blackwell also expresses his fear that council leaders are setting the pace of digital transformation by their digital inclusion priorities.

However, it’s likely that organisations who advocate greater digital inclusion, (such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – who have challenged local authorities to improve accessibility), would disagree with this approach.

Interestingly, Mr Dattani emphasises that digital exclusion cannot be solved by one service or one local council, but requires cross-government collaboration.

Local leadership

Stephen Curtis, head of The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, has suggested that public sector leaders are ‘holding back digital revolution’. He explained that with digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.

Similarly, a council chief executive has suggested that the public sector lacks people with the necessary skills to lead digital transformation. He highlighted that in many cases, anything to do with digital is given to the head of IT. As such, digital projects are often poorly planned and systems which are not fit for purpose are being digitised, when a radical rethink of a whole service is needed.

National leadership

In the March 2015 Budget, former Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that there would be a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in helping local government achieve their digital transformation ambitions (the success of which is up for debate). However, in Philip Hammond’s most recent Autumn Statement, there was no mention of local government.

In a recent blog article, Theo Blackwell, argues that this omission should be corrected in the upcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget. In his view, central government, including the GDS, have an important role to play in supporting local government. He also highlights that a coherent digital strategy has not been included in any of the agreed devolution deals.

Fear over job losses

One of the major challenges highlighted for implementing artificial intelligence (AI) is the fear over a reduction in jobs.  However, Richard Sargeant, Director of ASI Data Science, suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. In his experience, AI will usually be used for tasks that are repetitive and that most staff members don’t enjoy. Staff can then be re-targeted to areas of work best suited to people, such as human interaction, making complex decisions or thinking creatively.

Security concerns

High profile data breaches – such as the 13,000 email addresses stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database in 2015 – are one of the main concerns for local government.

However, Martyn Wallace, new chief digital officer for 28 of Scotland’s local councils, argues that local authorities need to move away from their negative thinking on this issue. Although he acknowledges the potential harm which could come from a data breach, he emphasises the need to focus on the facts and to take an ‘appropriate view’. For him, if you have appropriate security measures, then there is no reason why security fears should limit your digital progress.

Final thoughts

Although digital change requires overcoming a variety of challenges, such as those highlighted here, the opportunities they present have the potential to create efficiencies and provide better public services. Achieving digital transformation won’t be easy, but, by building partnerships with central government and the private sector, local councils are more likely to make a success of it.

Despite the prospect of Brexit and ongoing budgetary pressures, investing in digital transformation is not an option for local government, but a necessity.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles.