Opinion: Speeding up Whitehall’s digital dashboard

Written by Nathaniel Tkacz on 4 April 2017 in Opinion

There are many gains from big data that could be had by government. As much as it can help Whitehall spot new patterns and anomalies, it will also help improve day to management

In 2010, the then chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt famously claimed that from the dawn of civilization until 2003, humans created roughly 5 exabytes – or 5 billion gigabytes – of information. That amount, he suggested, is now created every 2 days, and the pace is only increasing. Today, by some estimates, as much as 90% of the data in the world has been created in the last two years alone.

With big data constituting such an enormous resource, governments are increasingly trying to harness its potential power. In the recently published Government Transformation Strategy, data is central: it is acknowledged as a critical asset for developing more efficient and effective public services that respond to users needs.

But with such overwhelming quantities of information on offer, how can data actually be used in government?

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If data is to be made useful for anyone but a data scientist, it needs to be presented in a certain way, most commonly as a dashboard. Like the car dashboards on which they are modelled, data dashboards bring together information with a number of measures and indicators, typically onto a single screen for easy comparison and quick analysis.

Data dashboards are used across all levels of government. Departments use them to manage human resources or budgets, while local authorities can use them for hyper-local issues such as missed bin collection or one local council’s ‘clean and green’ dashboard for street cleanliness. Over the past few years, the Government Digital Services team within the Cabinet Office has been creating a dashboard for every public service offered by the government and they now number more than 800.

Each of these public service dashboards come with a “full screen mode”, where the dashboard elements are configured for public display. Typically, a single measure or indicator hovers for a few seconds on the screen before being replaced by another number. The scrolling indicator gives these displays a rhythm and sense of motion befitting the realtime sensibility of our imagined data-driven future. Commonly positioned in department entrances or in the public spaces in offices, these displays are not meant for monitoring or analysis, but to transform the work environment, to project an atmosphere of measurement, an ambience of performance.

These data dashboards can be understood by not only data scientists but by the ‘drivers’ in government – people who want to use the data to do something else. By positioning users above a number of intersecting flows of data, information which has already been stripped back, filtered and formatted to reveal only the most relevant insights, dashboards offer non-experts a type of augmented situational awareness. The promise of dashboard use in government is that the decision-making environment is smooth and data-driven. But while dashboards help facilitate this data-driven culture, by their very nature they filter out more data than they can include. Determining which data makes it onto a dashboard is therefore crucial and a possible source of tension.

In order to understand how data is used, it is also important to consider how data transformation is inseparable from other government developments. For example, the use of data is a core component of the attempt to recreate “government as a platform” (GAAP). The GOV.UK ‘platform’ is a one stop shop for all materials published by the government and all of the services offered to its public. By standardising and aggregating all services onto a single platform, the government can collect standardised data for all services. When a service is fully digital or “digital by default”, a significant amount of data can be collected on each service.

Part of bringing all public services onto the GOV.UK platform requires all departments to publish performance data about each service. This is measured by four Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), measuring the cost, completion rate, user satisfaction and digital take up of each government service. But even a cursory glance at the performance data shows these measures are not regularly being used, and standardising measures across services will likely remain a challenge.

Looking at service dashboards, a clearer picture of data driven transformation emerges. Whatever the perceived capacities of data, it is likely data will be worked into existing managerial functions; data will be aggregated and squashed into key performance indicators and formatted into easily digestible visualisation techniques, many of which are centuries old.

The implementation of data-driven change will therefore be ad-hoc and uneven, the results will often underwhelm. The awe-inspiring exabyte flows of information described by Eric Schmidt will likely be navigated through the blinkers of performance management. But this doesn’t mean change isn’t coming.

An increased capacity to monitor, measure and analyse will likely advance a new culture of performance management, with more things being measured, more often and in more detail. This will have economic benefits, but the ramifications go well beyond increased efficiency. The new atmosphere of data-driven performance is equally reshaping how decisions are made, how public services are designed, and how government presents itself in public. The many perceived benefits of big data in government, such as increased transparency or the capacity to spot new patterns and anomalies, have shifted attention away from these more routine developments. But this is where big data is likely to have the most impact.

About the author

Nathaniel Tkacz is a Professor at the University of Warwick, and he co-wrote Demos's Governance by Dashboard report with Jamie Bartlett, the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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