Civica: Standards, Skills & Sharing: Laying the foundations for a smarter state

There are many ways to describe the vital role that data plays in our society. For me, data, quite simply, is the foundation upon which public services must be built to ensure they are delivering the best outcomes for citizens and communities.  

A building, no matter how large or architecturally impressive, will never stand the test of time or live up to its intended purpose unless it is built upon solid foundations. The same is true for public services. Every day across Whitehall and the wider public sector, thousands of decisions are made which impact directly on citizens and communities around the country. These range from multi-billion-pound spending decisions on infrastructure projects like HS2, to decisions relating to an individual’s pension or housing entitlements. If those decisions are being made without making use of information that is available and relevant, then opportunities to deliver better outcomes are being missed. 

Public bodies, both local and national, already sit on a vast and expanding wealth of data, which is growing by the day as our society becomes more digitised. The challenge, as the National Data Strategy correctly highlights, is that we are not, at present, making the best use of that data. Untapped data is at best a wasted resource; at worst it is unexploited potential to deliver real change for the people and communities who need it most. Exploiting data to its full potential is, however, eminently achievable. The solution lies in what I will term the ‘three S’ – Standards, Skills and Sharing.  

Reinforcing the foundations: Standards, skills & sharing 

Let’s begin with standards. Good, robust standards enable the re-use of data and allow people working with data to do so with confidence. Standards apply to any technology or human activity from standard units of measurement to building standards for construction, through to aviation standards that make flying affordable and safe. Data standards serve much the same purpose. By defining and applying robust data standards, government can concentrate on understanding and interpreting data without having to constantly check what it means or where it came from. 

Standards for managing data are, of course, of little use without the right people to ensure they are adhered to. This takes us onto skills. The COVID-19 pandemic was a prime example not just of the pivotal role that data plays in delivering public outcomes (in this case saving lives), but equally, the importance of being able to manage and interpret that data. High-quality data and teams of skilled, data-literate experts allowed Government to rapidly deliver a world-leading vaccination programme to millions of citizens across the UK only a few short months after the vaccine itself had been invented. Using data should not, however, be the domain of only senior management and trained analysts. With the right tools, training and systems, people at all levels of public service delivery, including those in frontline roles, could make better use of data to guide smarter, more innovative decision-making, thereby ensuring the best outcomes for the people they serve.  

But even standards and skills are not enough. The final hurdle to be overcome is data sharing. For all of us, data sharing is now a fact of life. From online shopping to clicking ‘Accept all Cookies’ every time we visit a new website, we know that we leave a digital footprint everywhere we go. For public bodies, the cumulative wealth of data they collect could offer a unique, holistic view of the needs of each citizen. Utility providers, health services and local authorities for instance, each hold data on those in vulnerable circumstances such as people struggling to pay bills. By sharing their data in a transparent and secure manner, public service providers can better understand the needs of each citizen they serve and offer solutions which are tailored to individual circumstances. 

Unleashing the power of data 

Data is transforming how public bodies serve citizens and communities. During the pandemic however, we had a glimpse of its true potential. From track and trace to vaccinations, data-driven technologies kept us safe and allowed us to live our lives, despite a global crisis. Data, used to its full potential, could, quite literally, transform the relationship between citizen and state. It could empower government to realise its vision to deliver true social value, to drive growth, to level-up across the regions and to tackle major global challenges like climate change. Data is one of our most precious resources and we’re not running out of it anytime soon. Let’s not waste it.  


About this Author

This Guest blog was written by Steve Thorn is Executive Director, Central Government at Civica. Steve is responsible for expert digital and data capabilities which are enabling the transformation agenda across the wider public sector. He is driving the opportunity to help our customers realise better outcomes for people and communities through responsive digital services and data insights. Steve is a passionate advocate within Civica for our progress with diversity and inclusion. Read more...

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