Working to make government more effective

In-person event

Bigger + more open = better? How can the data revolution make government more effective and improve policy making

The Institute for Government and the Royal Statistical Society held a discussion on how best to realise the potential of data to improve government.

John Pullinger began by observing that just a few months ago, an event on the use of data in policymaking would have been seen as very niche. However, the success of this event shows that the issue of data and how we use it has become central to many political debates. We need to challenge our thoughts on data and ask how we can harness it as a positive force for economic growth and better policymaking.

Jeni Tennison explained that the Open Data Initiative helps businesses work with open data. She recently worked on a project with Telefonica looking at how they could use their data on footfall in London to measure population density and movement, and how that information could then be shared with emergency services to make their services more responsive. However, the project was hampered by the fact that the Government’s own data was aggregated into monthly figures: it was not ‘granular’ enough to provide the detail needed to ‘mash up’ Government data with private sector data.

This project showed that data is not necessarily something to be produced by the Government and used by private companies. Companies themselves produce a huge amount of data than can be used by public services. However, for this interaction to work, public services need to learn how to use data better and how to produce the right kind of data in the first place.

Paul Maltby identified a number of ways in which open data is being used by the Open Data team at the Cabinet Office:

  • to increase accountability to citizens
  • to improve public services
  • as a driver of economic growth – for example, allowing firms to use open data to set up commercial apps.

The team aims to create a ‘National Information Infrastructure’, building on the 10,000 datasets which are already available through the website by releasing the further 4,000 datasets which are not yet published.

The Government still faces technical and cultural challenges in developing its capacity to judge the value of its data. However, in 5-10 year’s time, he forecast that the role of the policymaker in a data-rich world will be unrecognisable.

Fran Bennett explained her work in building systems that can make sense of huge data sets. While data has the potential to make public services work better and be more responsive to needs, policy at the moment is not driven by data. Better use of data will require not only a mental shift in attitudes towards data but also a skill shift at the heart of government, ‘from being a classicist to a computer scientist’.

She also raised the importance of developing regulations around the use of data. While data itself is neutral, the models that are developed around data are not. Very few guidelines exist on how to use data. To develop guidelines about how to use data responsibly, the Government needs to understand how data can be used in the first place.

Julian McCrae observed that data can be used to tell us a lot about what is happening on the ground and to solve challenges in public service delivery. Public sector organisations can operate in ‘tribes’ with polarised opinions: data can be used to drill down to the heart of a problem and overcome differences between tribes. He also observed that transparency of data is becoming more important through public sector contracting; public sector organisations often demand high levels of transparency around the performance of private companies, to win public contracts.

Closing the event, John Pullinger observed that while there were still issues to be overcome in developing Government capacity to use data effectively, the next 5-10 years will see significant changes. The data revolution will be an empowering movement, and investment in capability is needed to ensure that data is used as a power for good and not for bad.

Questions from the audience covered a numbers of issues, including;

  • the implications of open data for individual privacy
  • how to develop the capability of ministers and the public to use data effectively
  • the best way to make open data available
  • and the extent to which data can be used in arguments which are centred on political ideologies and emotions. 
Institute for Government

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