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UK: Data - It Must Actually Mean Something
Source: http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=22663
Source Date: Thursday, May 09, 2013
Focus: E-Participation, Information Access (and sharing)
Country: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Created: May 09, 2013

The public sector, from Whitehall to local government, is pretty poor at making good use of the masses of data it holds – and things have got to change, delegates at Public Service Events' Making Data Work conference were told. Matthew D'Arcy reports

David Cameron's personalised iPad app hit headlines last year as an expensive tool he would use to keep a watchful eye over government departments.

More crucial to the story was an admission from Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that emerged on Publicservice.co.uk. There was simply not enough reliable data in government to be fed into the Prime Minister's iPad app, said the minister.

Whitehall departments have since been presented with a mandatory requirement to produce comparable data so that their performance can be measured. And parts of government are making progress, Julian McRae told the Making Data Work in the Public Sector conference.

But McRae, research director at the Institute for Government who led its report into the matter said: "Whitehall is very, very poor at using management information."

Ministers at the top of government have publicly agreed with such a view – and at least some stand determined to rectify the lack of management information available.

Data, now seen as a raw material to revitalise the economy, hold government to account and to improve public services, has been released en masse for the public to see.

The open data agenda may at first glance appear to be a very different issue to the management information required by government. But releasing data to the public is the best way of improving your own management information, said the founder of mySociety.

Tom Steinberg, the entrepreneur whose social enterprise has created websites like FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou, urged public bodies to push their information out to the public if they wanted it to become useful management information.

"If data works for them, it can work for you," he said.

A civil servant wanting to know bank holidays would go to Gov.uk, he said. "I could ask the intranet or go to internal systems, but a lot of work has been done to make this question incredibly easy to answer for the public, so it becomes the place that I as a public servant want to go."

The same would apply for people working for companies like Google. If someone logged into their Google Docs and it didn't load, they would go to Google's own apps data dashboard to get the answer, said Steinberg.

He even recalled an admission from one very senior counter-terrorism civil servant, who said he would use Wikipedia to recall the identities of individuals highlighted in intelligence reports from Afghanistan.

"Services which are made useful for the public are used widely by people inside institutions," he told the conference.

It was the reason why people inside parliament used his own TheyWorkForYou website to keep track of what had been said in the House of Commons and House of Lords, even though they already had access to the same information on specially designed internal systems.

"Meeting the expectations of modern web users will result in data services that you and people working inside institutions will use more often than your own internal tools," he said.

"There is a peculiar discipline that comes from trying to make your data useful for many more people that has the side effect of making it much more useful than your own stuff. If you make it public, that will make you and your colleagues use it much more."

But in pushing out the information that people wanted the most, "every single local government body sucks", said Steinberg.

And local government needed to do more with data in other areas, the conference heard. People had been coming up with "excuses" for not using predictive analytics to improve their services, said Barry McIntyre. The Presidion director said local government already had most of the tools it needed to carry this out, to be able to "look into the future" and make better decisions based on an understanding customer needs. "Most people say 'my data is rubbish'. It's not rubbish, you just think its rubbish," he said, urging public bodies to harness huge amounts of data in places like blogs and social networks where the public expressed how they felt about services.

Peter Fleming, chairman of the Local Government Association improvement board, said there were some big data issues about to impact on councils.

A top-down approach was not the way to go, he warned. "We have managed to pretty much kill the Audit Commission," he said. "But the National Audit Office is definitely trying to park its tanks on the lawn where the Audit Commission has left. And more worrying for local government is Margaret Hodge and the Public Accounts Committee, who have started to believe that their remit of following the public pound can go into the local government sector.

"The last thing we need is a re-emergence of a top-down audit regime."

Sector-led improvement was the way forward. Local Government Inform, which he admitted was "the worst possible way of showing data" when first launched, had undergone significant change and would help local government take responsibility. It would compare one council's performance against others and show data in an accessible way, allowing all councillors to understand the information, not just the "data wonks".

Members of the public would even be allowed limited access to compare their authority against others. This would be more effective than the mandate from Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles to publish spending over £500, something Fleming said resulted in meaningless spreadsheets that hadn't been a success. "The data we give to our residents must actually mean something," he said.The public sector, from Whitehall to local government, is pretty poor at making good use of the masses of data it holds – and things have got to change, delegates at Public Service Events' Making Data Work conference were told. Matthew D'Arcy reports

David Cameron's personalised iPad app hit headlines last year as an expensive tool he would use to keep a watchful eye over government departments.

More crucial to the story was an admission from Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that emerged on Publicservice.co.uk. There was simply not enough reliable data in government to be fed into the Prime Minister's iPad app, said the minister.

Whitehall departments have since been presented with a mandatory requirement to produce comparable data so that their performance can be measured. And parts of government are making progress, Julian McRae told the Making Data Work in the Public Sector conference.

But McRae, research director at the Institute for Government who led its report into the matter said: "Whitehall is very, very poor at using management information."

Ministers at the top of government have publicly agreed with such a view – and at least some stand determined to rectify the lack of management information available.

Data, now seen as a raw material to revitalise the economy, hold government to account and to improve public services, has been released en masse for the public to see.

The open data agenda may at first glance appear to be a very different issue to the management information required by government. But releasing data to the public is the best way of improving your own management information, said the founder of mySociety.

Tom Steinberg, the entrepreneur whose social enterprise has created websites like FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou, urged public bodies to push their information out to the public if they wanted it to become useful management information.

"If data works for them, it can work for you," he said.

A civil servant wanting to know bank holidays would go to Gov.uk, he said. "I could ask the intranet or go to internal systems, but a lot of work has been done to make this question incredibly easy to answer for the public, so it becomes the place that I as a public servant want to go."

The same would apply for people working for companies like Google. If someone logged into their Google Docs and it didn't load, they would go to Google's own apps data dashboard to get the answer, said Steinberg.

He even recalled an admission from one very senior counter-terrorism civil servant, who said he would use Wikipedia to recall the identities of individuals highlighted in intelligence reports from Afghanistan.

"Services which are made useful for the public are used widely by people inside institutions," he told the conference.

It was the reason why people inside parliament used his own TheyWorkForYou website to keep track of what had been said in the House of Commons and House of Lords, even though they already had access to the same information on specially designed internal systems.

"Meeting the expectations of modern web users will result in data services that you and people working inside institutions will use more often than your own internal tools," he said.

"There is a peculiar discipline that comes from trying to make your data useful for many more people that has the side effect of making it much more useful than your own stuff. If you make it public, that will make you and your colleagues use it much more."

But in pushing out the information that people wanted the most, "every single local government body sucks", said Steinberg.

And local government needed to do more with data in other areas, the conference heard. People had been coming up with "excuses" for not using predictive analytics to improve their services, said Barry McIntyre. The Presidion director said local government already had most of the tools it needed to carry this out, to be able to "look into the future" and make better decisions based on an understanding customer needs. "Most people say 'my data is rubbish'. It's not rubbish, you just think its rubbish," he said, urging public bodies to harness huge amounts of data in places like blogs and social networks where the public expressed how they felt about services.

Peter Fleming, chairman of the Local Government Association improvement board, said there were some big data issues about to impact on councils.

A top-down approach was not the way to go, he warned. "We have managed to pretty much kill the Audit Commission," he said. "But the National Audit Office is definitely trying to park its tanks on the lawn where the Audit Commission has left. And more worrying for local government is Margaret Hodge and the Public Accounts Committee, who have started to believe that their remit of following the public pound can go into the local government sector.

"The last thing we need is a re-emergence of a top-down audit regime."

Sector-led improvement was the way forward. Local Government Inform, which he admitted was "the worst possible way of showing data" when first launched, had undergone significant change and would help local government take responsibility. It would compare one council's performance against others and show data in an accessible way, allowing all councillors to understand the information, not just the "data wonks".

Members of the public would even be allowed limited access to compare their authority against others. This would be more effective than the mandate from Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles to publish spending over £500, something Fleming said resulted in meaningless spreadsheets that hadn't been a success. "The data we give to our residents must actually mean something," he said.
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