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How do you measure a nation's progress?

Welsh Government recently published a consultation setting out their proposals for developing a set of national milestones for Wales. While this is an opportunity for Wales to think about what it measures, it represents a greater opportunity for Welsh Government to think about how it collects, analyses, uses and shares data.

We think there are two things that Welsh Government should consider when thinking about what the milestones are:

  1. Making them data-rich and timely to aid decision making - through the use of data that’s already available, both within and beyond government;
  2. Making the data available to others to use, reuse and share on an open basis.

There is a pressing need across public services in Wales to improve the way that data is used. Recent reports have suggested that local governments needs to do more to develop a strong data culture and to improve leadership around the use of digital technologies.

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Recommendation 1 - Use data that’s already out there

Broadly speaking, we think that the approach to what is being measured is sensible - the things that are proposed to be measured are more or less the right things and will allow ministers to make decisions about where to intervene with the powers and resources at their disposal.

However, while the national indicators demonstrate a willingness to draw data from a range of sources, most are from pre-existing, routinely collected government data that will only ever provide a historic picture of what has happened, not what is currently happening.

The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) in New York demonstrates how this might happen in a different way, with initiatives such as Databridge - bringing together 50 data feeds from public and external organisations to provide a rich source of data for decision makers that’s led to significant improvements in the way services are delivered.

What we’d like to see is that this information becomes available in richer formats and in shorter timescales - allowing for more informed, more timely and therefore more effective decision making by ministers and other decision makers.

We see this exercise as an opportunity for Welsh Government to experiment with and adopt new methods of gathering and analysing data. Some of this work has already been done in Wales. The Arloesiadur platform developed jointly by Welsh Government and Nesta provides real-time analysis of how Wales innovates, drawing in data from a wide range of sources, including official data sources like Office for National Statistics, funders like UK Research and Innovation and social platforms like Meetup. In doing so, it provides a rich overview of how our innovation ecosystem currently works and allows ministers and civil servants to start their decision-making process with a clearer understanding of the strengths, weakness, gaps and opportunities that exist.

At a time when trust in our democratic institutions is historically low, finding new ways to engage people in decision making is imperative.

Recommendation 2 - Make data more available and support its use by others

Alongside an opportunity to experiment with how Welsh Government uses different types of data, there is also an opportunity to share data more effectively so that others can use, reuse and share it. In doing so, we anticipate that this will allow others to more effectively scrutinise the data and decisions that follow it and build new products and services that could accelerate the pace at which Welsh Government achieves its goals.

At a time when trust in our democratic institutions is historically low, finding new ways to engage people in decision making is imperative - whether that’s through more effective scrutiny, better forms of consultation or informing citizens through new channels. We see examples of governments across the world experimenting effectively with digital technologies to achieve this (especially when blended with more traditional and offline forms of engagement). Using this opportunity to open the data to allow people to understand and respond to decisions made by Welsh Government can be a tool in the fight to rebuild trust in democracy.

As an example of how this might work, In 2013 Jussi Pajunen, Mayor of Helsinki put forward a vision that all data on decision making within the city should be available to all. This led to the creation of Open Ahjo which has allowed active citizens to share and scrutinise decisions made at a city level and improved the use of data by city employees.

Secondly, making the data available allows people to create new things - products and services - that have the potential to support Welsh Government’s activity aimed at achieving their milestones. That may be through finding new ways to communicate and debate how progress is being made - the arts is a great vehicle for doing that - or allowing private, third sector and community organisations to build new tools that allow people to respond to issues that the data raises.

In both instances, this creates opportunities for the burden of responding to challenges to be shared beyond Welsh Government, facilitating community participation in developing and delivering solutions and moving away from a paternalistic form of governance to a deliberative form of governance.

However, we should also balance the supply of open data with current demand for its use, and the skills needed to use it. If Welsh Government want to make the most of the opportunities that open data provides, it may also need to facilitate its use through activities like Challenge Prizes or hack days and ensuring that the data infrastructure is easily accessible and well documented.

We see already examples of this in the way that air quality data is released and used. Wales has access to lots of real-time data about air quality, yet little is done with the data to drive changes in behaviour. In making data available, we also need to ensure that it is used to drive the change that’s necessary, and that might mean providing practical support and investment in the skills needed to build new things.

It is our view that, while getting the milestones right is important, the way we use and respond to the data is of greater importance and should be used to inform how the milestones are set.

We believe that our recommendations - using the data that’s out there and being more open - are useful starting points to think about the broader implications of the milestones and will allow Welsh Government and Wales to respond more effectively to the challenges that we face as a nation.

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Y Lab

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Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Head of Y Lab

Rob is Head of Y Lab, the Public Service Innovation Lab for Wales.

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