The benefits and challenges of harnessing data

How and why government must utilise the data they collect and hold


01 Sep 2015

The topic of big data has received considerable hype, but it only becomes a useful trend if skilled employees have the tools at hand to analyse information and deliver new insights. Evidence suggests a significant shift in mind set is required for public sector organisations to benefit from the mining and analysis of data.

McKinsey suggested back in 2011 that the public sector could boost its productivity significantly through the effective use of information. The consultant claimed European public sector administrators could use big data to produce value equivalent to €250m a year. 

Yet research from Arizona State University last year concluded that public bodies have yet to fully embrace the concept of big data. There are many reasons – both technical and cultural – why public sector organisations are not in a position to easily visualise or use the vast amount of data they collect and hold.

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One explanation, according to the university, is that the technical implications can be overwhelming. None of the public sector institutions in the survey, for example, had started to tackle the challenge of mining unstructured data, such as information from social media sources.

The lack of attention to big data in government organisations is not necessarily surprising. Much of the hype surrounding the topic has served as a distraction, leaving some managers in public sector bodies to question the usefulness of a concept that is emphasised regularly but often articulated badly.

It is time to get beneath the flimflam. The mining and analysis of information matters because the identification of trends can help executives to deliver services that help improve the lives of citizens. To elucidate such trends, public sector officials must have access to powerful analytical tools. 

Finding cash for new projects is unlikely to be straightforward.  Yet as McKinsey has exemplified, well-resourced analytics projects can produce great returns for public sector bodies. Government IT managers must prove the value of analytics, promoting a cultural shift in organisations where budget holders can begin to see how an investment in big data technologies leads to new efficiencies, both in terms of administration and customer service.

Timely access to the right technical tools is not the only concern. To really deliver interesting insight from information, government organisations need high quality data experts. However, the demand for information analytics expertise is creating huge competitive pressure across all sectors.

The CBI says 39% of UK businesses are struggling to recruit workers with the advanced science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills they need, with 41% of firms saying shortages will persist for the next three years. In such competitive circumstances, public sector organisations are likely to struggle to source top talent.

Government organisations are unlikely to be able to compete with private firms when it comes to wages. But public sector bodies do create and run hugely interesting data sets that analytical individuals can use to create truly innovative services. For IT staff keen on developing data expertise, the public sector provides a potentially fascinating breeding ground for ideas.

Speaking in a personal capacity earlier this year, Chris Fleming, head of data and analytics at the Government Office for Science, pointed to a lack of requisite skills to tackle big data among the government's staff in general, as well as saying newly graduated data scientists are under-served by public sector technology.
Government IT managers must help create a cultural shift. While the technical and human expertise to make the most of big data might not be prevalent, the information – and the will to turn that data into insight – is certainly extant within the public sector.

By seeking out support from partners, both in terms of other public bodies and trusted external providers, government organisations can begin to create useful knowledge and services from the vast amounts of data they collect and hold.

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