It will come as no surprise to many that the reports are less than glowing: little has been done to implement the recommendations of previous reports; and despite pockets of good practice and innovation, progress in moving towards a culture of data-driven public services is, at best, slow.
So, how do we ensure that these latest reports don’t just clutter desks but actually become catalysts for change that improves services for the people who use them?
Our experiences of working with the public sector show that people benefit from the time and space to play and discover
A lack of digital and data leadership comes across clearly in both reports, with both recommending giving responsibility to single people to drive change and the possibility of strategic resources deployed to make change happen. We don’t disagree with this, but we also think that they need to be coupled with mid-to-long-term capacity building to support deep-rooted change.
Our experiences of working with the public sector show that people benefit from the time and space to play and discover what new technologies are and what they’re capable of; we need to create the conditions for people to learn through failure and from what others are doing around the world, such as Nesta’s digital frontrunners.
We believe strongly in giving people the tools and knowledge to make informed decisions about the data or technology they’re being presented with. That means citizens as well as people working in public services so lets always build with all of those stakeholders in mind - our work in the DSI4EU project and others demonstrates how to do this well.
If it were up to us, we’d re-constitute our digital innovators' network, with specific strands for elected officials, digital professionals and senior/service managers; we’d explore whether the People Powered Results method could be adapted to support rapid change; and we’d look at the benefits of improving our collective intelligence so that the ability of groups to make informed decisions using data or about technology improve exponentially.
We’d encourage more organisations to make the most of the five ways of working set out in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act - in particular, the principle of involvement. We think citizens shouldn’t just benefit from better use of digital and data by public services, they should be actively involved in creating and using it as well.
An oft-repeated refrain is that the public sector lacks the resources, skills and time make the most of data and new digital technology. If that’s genuinely true (and it probably is), then we should also be looking elsewhere for support from those who do have the things we need. Sometimes, the best uses of public data and digital tools occur outside of public services, provided the right infrastructure is in place - just look at what TFL has achieved by making its data open; I can’t find a similar ambition for this within Transport for Wales at present. So how are we supporting and making the most of organisations like Democracy Club? And how might we provide incentives for people to create some of the public service solutions we need?
The things we’d do straight away if given the chance would be to fix the key bits of data that would make greater collaboration easier - the things shared by multiple agencies so that they’re cross-comparable (such as address data); and make sure that we’re communicating how public services are expected to measure performance against things like the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act so that we’re measuring the same things in the same ways - Kate Raworth’s measurements against the doughnut are a good example here.
We’d like to see more done to support procurement; Welsh Government’s SBRI programme (and the GovTech Challenge delivered by UK Government) is a great example of a method that can make this happen but it needs more support if it’s going to be applied to some of the more intractable, shared problems that public services currently face. Support organisations to procure for shared values and outcomes and ensure that these are recorded so that everyone can understand how best to solve some of our more intractable problems through more effective procurement - CityMart is a great example of how this can work in practice;
Finally, we’d like to see more organisations making use of the capacity within organisations like the Office for National Statistics - their Data Science Campus provides an open invitation to public services looking to make the most of data science capacity.
Support organisations to procure for shared values and outcomes so that everyone can understand how best to solve some of our more intractable problems
We’re strong advocates of the Once for Wales principle contained in Welsh Government’s Digital Health and Social Care Strategy for Wales - the idea that we should be looking to make the most efficient use of new technologies and new processes by collaboratively developing and sharing as much as possible.
We’re not advocating a one-size fits all approach though - we want to see this principle applied as much to the values and outcomes of the work we need to do across the whole public sector as much as the tools and methods used to achieve it.
It’s clear that there’s some work to be done to make this possible - not least in the way that we currently handle data across (and often within) different organisations - but all these things are fixable. We’d love to see both data standards and standardised data, more of which is open at best and shared at worst.
What’s most important is that all of this needs to happen in a simultaneous way, not in a linear way - we can’t wait for one thing to get fixed before we move on to the next. We need concurrent change across a number of areas - rapid, focused, short-term change coupled with medium to long-term capacity building; conversations and action around how we procure and fixing the data needed to do it at the same time.
Momentum is key - building it, then sustaining it. We know we’re behind the curve, at best walking to catch up. We need a leap, then we need to sustain a stronger pace.