In the last ten years, our ability to analyse vast amounts of variable forms of data at great speed has, for some, opened up a brave new world of a government of services micro-targeted to individuals; policy devised, implemented and evaluated in real time; “data commons” empowering and freeing individuals and communities; even the very paraphernalia of public service itself replaced with algorithms! 

Beyond the hype (and the idea of Sir Humphrey being superseded by a 16-year-old with an app is as delicious as it is unlikely) using data more smartly to design better policy and improve people’s lives is a worthy aim. Yet, despite pockets of excellence, it’s proving remarkably hard to do. Why?

Part of the reason, I would argue, is that while we’ve invested in the data infrastructure (literally with the IDI, which I believe to be world leading) we haven’t made the same investment in the people to traverse it. While we’re starting to define what the modern data team looks like, we’re less clear on how we get to that from where we are now. Even if we can create such a team how do we lead and incentivise them? And even if we can do that successfully, how do we embed their role into the broader organisation?

Filling each of these gaps is vital. The baleful influence of FW Taylor on the public sector is nowhere felt more keenly than in data teams required only to reduce beautifully rich individual level data sets to KPIs, irrelevant when not counterproductive and meaningless when not misleading. The requirement to generate insight rather than unread reports is exciting but demands new skills (or the reactivation of dormant ones), new ways of working, and new ways of thinking about information and how it relates to services.

Equally important is understanding how such teams relate, respond to and influence the organisations they are in. Building the world’s most innovative and insightful data teams without considering this point would be like fitting a Rolls Royce engine and forgetting the transmission.

So how do we do achieve this? I’m not sure. At the moment I have a lot of questions. The great privilege of having an LDC fellowship is that I have the opportunity to answer them. Via this blog, I have the opportunity to share them as they emerge.

Rational responses to irrational systems brainstorm diagram