“Digital technology means it’s much easier to hold a genuine iterative dialogue with the users of public services,” Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock told an audience at Reform earlier this week. “This sort of data is important when designing services, but it’s a crucial driver of reform too."
There is no doubt that governments control a large and ever-increasing amount of data about citizens, public services and the world around us. From individual health records and school league tables, to weather maps and economic statistics, the range of government data is diverse, and its potential uses are enormous. Like private organisations, the challenge for governments is to get the most out of their data, in this case, for the greater good.
Until recently, much government data was jealously guarded, available only to those with privileged access. But with the advent of the "Open Data" movement, governments have been subject to mounting public pressure to freely release more data to citizens and corporations.
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Proponents of Open Data argue that sharing raw public data is the key to unlocking its value. But while this push for transparency and accountability is commendable, it provides no guidance on other pressing issues such as which data-sets governments should collect in the first place or how they should manage sensitive or personal information. Indeed, the current debate about the public's role in government data threatens to overshadow an equally important issue: how data can be better used by government to improve outcomes.
By itself, government data has no inherent value. Its value lies in its application; specifically, how the data can generate insights that will, in turn, inform a decision or action to improve outcomes in society – such as better services, improved accountability, and higher economic growth.
Better services can be achieved by using data to find efficiencies and enhance collaboration. Improved accountability stems from using data to inform evidence-based decisions and enhance transparency. Higher economic growth can result when insights about industry are used to foster innovation in the private sector as well as promote equitable regulation. Often, a single source of data creates value in multiple ways. For example, publishing surgical outcomes can help clinicians to improve their own performance; help patients to choose a hospital; and help citizens hold those responsible for the health system to account.
To find the sources of value within a given portfolio, government agencies should first examine the data sets they already hold, and ask whether or not they are missing any opportunities to use those data sets to create value. This is where Open Data can sometimes help, as often the quickest way to find new opportunities from existing datasets is simply to make them publically available and then observe how people make use of the data.
More strategically, government agencies should consider how their organisation creates value – their operating model – to identify opportunities where a smarter approach to data might allow them to create even more value in the future.
For government data to create value, it must inspire action. The process of creating value from data involves four steps, beginning with collection and ending with action. The second and third steps in the chain involve distribution (who can access data) and analysis (how they can use the data). Underpinning each step is a series of enablers such as IT infrastructure and organisational structures.
There is no shortage of data being collected and held by government agencies. But the challenge for governments when extracting value from data is ensuring that the data they collect in the first place will ultimately serve the purposes for which it was intended. To do this, governments must concern themselves with activities across the whole chain so they can ultimately be sure of making informed decisions based on the best available data.
Another challenge involves identifying who can do what with data. In the context of government data, government entities are usually the primary holder of rights with the authority to trade or transfer those rights as assets. With those rights comes the responsibility to ensure that government accounts for the – often competing – interests of different parties. Another hotly contested area is the status and ownership of personal data. The extent to which an individual has rights over data related to them is the subject of debate in many countries around the world. Managing these trade-offs, and allocating rights between government and individuals, will be key to resolving the status and uses of personal data in future.
Given that government agencies exist within a highly complex operating environment, the most effective approach to change is an adaptive one, in which steps are taken and the outcomes observed before further changes are rolled out.
While there are challenges to overcome, some of them substantial, the potential value of government data is too great to overlook. Meanwhile, the volume and variety of data being collected inevitably grows ever larger with profound implications for individuals and society as a whole. Without taking a strategic approach to data, governments risk being overwhelmed. Failing to take advantage of their data, now and in the future, will leave governments trailing behind in their duties to citizens.