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Wise Council: Insights from the cutting edge of data-driven local government

The common observation that ‘information represents power’ is never truer than in the area of local government. As providers of over 900 unique local services for the people and places we serve, councils assemble vast quantities of business and transactional content as part of day-to-day operations. This mountain of data provides the potential for impressive analytics, further innovation and a powerful evidence base.

It is only in recent years, however, that the potential for making better use of data within local government has been considered in earnest. The challenges of austerity, along with a drive towards improved efficiencies and transparency in the public sector have encouraged the creation of a more reliable evidence base from which decisions for future directions can be taken reliably.

Whilst local government has assembled these huge quantities of data, data base connectivity has been confined to a smaller number of forward thinking authorities. Silos of data are widespread in local government and, whilst they support their primary functions successfully, opportunities have been missed because data between councils (and even within councils) are often incompatible for connection, sharing and wider re-use for other purposes.

But information management practices within local government have improved substantially over the last decade, largely driven by the move towards increasing electronic delivery of services, a drive for productivity gains and improvements in the capabilities and skills of IT resources. It is arguable that local government is one of the most advanced sectors in relation to the work and progress made in the area of information standards and data collection. When done well, information management is not restricted to IT standards and process monitoring. A whole raft of other important considerations are essential for a fool-proof local information infrastructure. Examples include: quality control measures, security, governance, data cataloguing, sharing protocols, timeliness of update, licensing and release.

There are a number of impressive success stories where pioneers have addressed the essential considerations above and have used data to support decisions and improve services or reaped the other benefits that better use of data can bring. These examples all required navigation of a series of barriers, direction changes, mistakes and strategy refinement along the way. However, the experience and lessons learned can encourage other local authorities to engage and move forward in similar ways.

During 2016, the Local Government Association teamed up with Nesta on their Local Datavores work, a research programme which seeks to explore how local authorities can use data better to improve the lives of people and communities. This involved engagement and research with groups of experts (data analysts,
project managers, IT specialists and senior leaders) in local authorities and their partner organisations. From the information gleaned, the project team was able to review and analyse councils’ uses of data. The result is a powerful and impressive list of innovative and successful projects. This report summarises the key findings and bases its content on a series of case studies drawn from widespread geographical locations and very different areas of local government responsibilities.

We hope that the materials provided in this report will encourage other local authorities (and their local partners) to begin to move into this space and feel confident that there are good sources of experience and support to help them make better use of data. For everyone, we can take heart that highly skilled data practitioners are in post, working daily to improve the use that is made from local data sets; and that, by working together, all authorities can benefit from the learning and experience of these pioneers and improve the use they make of data for local and regional decisions and service transformation.