What local authorities should do to improve their data maturity

According to the Wales Audit Office

Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

Local authorities need to do more

In a report published today* The Auditor General (AG)of Wales says local authorities:

“are slowly developing a strong data culture”

but

“they need to do more to unlock its full potential”.

It’s quite a good report, it doesn’t take too long to read and makes some salient points. It also includes a new data maturity model. Surely we can never have enough data maturity models? I actually like this one, it’s very unambitious (essentially it covers the less mature half of a lot of other data maturity models) and it includes Open Data as a distinct category alongside standards of leadership.

The report makes a series of recommendations which are helpfully presented in four groups.

Group one: data culture and leadership

The AG recommends that local authorities:

  • have a clear vision that treats data as a key resource
  • establish corporate data standards and coding that all services use
    for their core data
  • undertake an audit to determine what data is held by services and
    identify any duplicated records and information requests

Pretty uncontroversial though, perhaps, a little embarrassing that local authorities need the WAO to recommend it out to them. This is basically fixing the plumbing. Not that that’s a problem, the plumbing needs to be fixed. He goes on…

  • create a central integrated customer account as a gateway to
    services

That is more controversial and, I’d like to submit probably a very bad idea. I also don’t see how it arises from the evidence gathered in the report. But then I’m a long time skeptic of integrated customer accounts for local government.

Group 2: data sharing

The research found that individuals within local authorities are often reluctant to share personal data for a range of reasons including risk aversion and the complexity of data sharing agreements.

Local authorities should (says the AG):

  • provide refresher training to service managers to ensure they know
    when and what data they can and cannot share
  • review and update data sharing protocols to ensure they support
    services to deliver their data sharing responsibilities.

Both of these seem to be perfectly sensible ideas. I can’t help feeling that this is largely a symptom of low data maturity rather than a cause. As public services become more mature in their use of data: their confidence in sharing data and their willingness to invest in data sharing agreements will very likely grow.

Group 3: investment

Local authorities should:

  • identify staff who have a role in analysing and managing data to
    remove duplication and free up resources to build and develop
    capacity in data usage

This is oddly worded but seems to be essentially saying that it’s more efficient to centralise data analysis responsibilities. Which it probably is. Though that brings its own problems. I can’t help thinking this is a fairly marginal recommendation to be making.

  • invest and support the development of staff data analytical, mining
    and segmentation skills

Good plan. Though I am surprised that the AG doesn’t talk about investing in data literacy. After all his own research found that:

poor levels of data literacy is a reoccurring theme

Group four: data culture

The AG recommends that local authorities:

  • set data reporting standards to ensure minimum data standards
    underpin decision making

I’m all for this. I’m not sure I’d think about this as a minimum standards issue, more a continuous improvement. Maybe scrutiny committees could routinely ask “Has the quality of the data used by the cabinet for decision making improved”.

  • make more open data available

Obviously I’d have preferred this to have a little more exposition around it but I’ll take it. Worryingly the researchers found:

there is still a way to go to convince some that open data is an opportunity and not a threat

Still I’m pleased to see that the Auditor General of Wales thinks:

Open data is an important characteristic of data maturity, and making information available in real time can assist a wide range of organisations to develop new businesses and services.

Small, achievable steps

This is a “could do better” verdict. The recommendations are sensible but not ambitious. This is a double-edged sword. Managers in local authorities are likely to believe they could deliver the things the AG proposes so that might make action more likely. The lack of ambition might suggest that investment in these areas is not a priority making action less likely.

The Auditor General doesn’t seem to be that ambitious about what local authorities can hope to achieve. I really hope Welsh local government shows him how much more ambitious he should be. Though I fear he may be more realistic about local government than I am.

*I was interviewed on behalf of The Satori Lab as part of the research that led to this report.


I work at The Satori Lab. We also host ODI-Cardiff.

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