“Data rich but insight poor”

Moving from a performance culture to participatory design in local government

David Ayre
Mar 21, 2018 · 6 min read

I’ve been back in local government for just over a year now after nearly five years in the 3rd sector. The landscape has changed a lot while I’ve been away, but there are opportunities that have come with this. There is a clear and present need for us to do things differently, and I’ve had the chance to pioneer some of that thinking here in Doncaster.

When I arrived, the phrase I heard a lot was that we were ‘data rich but insight poor’. In Doncaster, we have a lot of service-level performance data, which gives us knowledge about what is happening in our communities, but not so much why. So I set about changing this any way that I could, to make sure that we started to shift to focussing on what matters to people, rather than what the matter is with them.

By introducing a new way of doing things, that incorporates service design, co-production, design research and behavioural insight across education, skills, and health & social care, we are already able to draw on a deeper understanding of the habits, behaviors and motivations of residents.

It has not always been a comfortable process, but it is starting to bear fruit in some important policy areas for us locally. Working with partners, government departments and innovation & design agencies, we’ve built an evidence base of what works for our residents, both young and old, that can inform commissioning, service re-design and community engagement.

A well known knotty issue

We have been aware for long enough that young people aren’t achieving their full potential in Doncaster, and that the quality of the careers advice they receive relies too heavily on the quality of face to face provision. The evidence base locally and nationally evidence has confirmed this in the last two years.

I knew if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got — and something needed to change. Careers advice is a particularly knotty problem that’s continually baffled policymakers. The solutions that have emerged have too often failed to make the transition from teacher-centric to pupil-centric driven advice, despite clear recommendations for change from, amongst others, the Gatsby Foundation, the Edge Foundation and the Education & Skills Commission over the past decade.

Call it serendipity, but the call from the Open Data Institute (ODI) came along at the right time. They were looking for ideas for how opening up data could help inform service redesign and solve public sector problems. Here was an opportunity to harness the power of open data and take a design-led approach to improving the quality of careers advice for young people, while working in partnership with Uscreates who could add considerable experience and expertise around user centred design and research.

Joining forces with a design agency

Embedding them into our team locally was a really beneficial way of working. As a team, there wasn’t much exposure to this sort of work, and I really enjoyed watching the approach begin to embed itself in the thinking of my colleagues. In a short space of time, we moved from simply team members to advocates and proponents of this way of working.

The vastly different perspectives, disciplinary approaches, and ways of working around this complex problem was what made the work so good (to both lead and be a part of) and strikes me as something which has the potential to become ‘the way we do things around here’.

A new way of doing things

Not content with simply introducing an established way of doing things that was new to Doncaster, we even went as far as creating a new methodology! I’d love to take the credit for it, but have to doff my cap to Cat and Thomas at Uscreates for coining the term ‘Triple Track Double Diamond’. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, GovBot!

Here is is a data and design project process that emerged as the work developed. It involved running streams of work concurrently to understand:

  1. User needs (through user research),
  2. Data requirements and availability (through a data scan), and
  3. Organisational needs (through partnership workshops and face to face/ telephone interviews).

What the insight told us

Speaking directly to young people unearthed some really rich insight that we had never had before. It raised some really important questions: why doesn’t CIAG start earlier in secondary school? What can young people do if they don’t want to go down the traditional routes made available to them? How can we make it so that they see the variety of opportunities out there rather than just a few professions?

Using this alongside the open data and the insight from advisors to develop challenge briefs really helped to crystallise things for me. What emerged was a richness that exceeded even my own initial expectations, with a clear pattern beginning to emerge around the availability of advice, the confidence of advisors in providing it dependent on their own skill set, and whether the combination of this opened up or closed down the options available to them.

This co-design process also served another, accidental, end — exposing a broader range of partners to the new way of doing things. It’s safe to say that we all went on a journey around what was open data, what was available data, and what was simply information. Young people were pretty clear that simply putting information out there wasn’t enough to make it useful so them, so what we created had to answer the questions that they had.

Design tools and what we built with them

We used different design tools through the project:

  • Journey mapping as part of research and synthesis of insights on the learner’s experience of careers advice from years 7 to 13
  • Personas to synthesise the insight from a learner and advisor perspective, helping co-design
  • Data scan, data cards and a data segmentation to help assess what data was available in the local area, how open it was, and how useful it was in addressing challenges.

The insights and challenges were brought to a co-design workshop with partners, who had the chance to make use of the journey mapping, personas and data segmentation we’d done to develop a few prototype ideas which might offer an improved solution.

One of these looked to transform the way learners understand the careers open to them, which flowed out of the simple user need of “how do you know what you want to be?”. Creating a new front-end search function to allow the young people to input academic skills, soft skills and interest which provides them with a range of career options suitable to them emerged as our prototype.

In testing this with young people, two of the team took on the Bear Grylls mantra of “improvise, adapt, overcome” after their feedback session with young people was cancelled, and instead did some rapid user testing in a canteen! If that ain’t agile, I’m not sure what is.

Building up a high fidelity prototype had a fairly profound impact on them, with feedback such as “We don’t usually get stuff like this in Doncaster” only serving to demonstrate the latent potential of this approach.

What happens next?

We submitted our final learning to the ODI back in February, and our story (along with the other 3 local authorities who were part of the project) can be found in their awesome write up. The bigger picture for me is that I now have colleagues who want to help take this forward, and also use the techniques again on other projects. Today, careers advice; tomorrow — who knows!

David Ayre

Written by

Project Director @futuregov formerly Head of Strategy in local government. Passionate about building a public sector fit for the 21st century.