Eddie Copeland, director of government innovation at Nesta, believes that the best way for public sector organisations to improve public services is by making better use of their data, much in the same way that private sector companies can be more efficient and serve their customers better by optimising data. However, they all face the perennial “jigsaw problem” - data that is fragmented and siloed. If that issue can be overcome, there is a huge opportunity.
“If we want better public services, different public sector bodies have to share teams, assets, and resources with each other. They can do that, but only if they’ve got data on the problem on the other side of their boundaries,” he argued.
“The Holy Grail of public service reform is prediction and prevention."
He said that intelligently co-ordinating the actions of multiple teams can be particularly helpful in areas such as child or adult social care where you can have 30 separate organisations supporting one family or individual.
“The Holy Grail of public service reform is prediction and prevention or prediction and early intervention. An increasing number of public sector organisations are realising that, if they combine and analyse the right kinds of data sets, they can get a better idea about where demand will occur, where problems will escalate. They can then try and put in place measures much earlier in the process.”
In his view, as well as the jigsaw problem, many public sector organisations have a tendency to be risk-averse with data and data projects, which may be down to a negative slant in press coverage surrounding public sector data projects where there have been data breaches, and poorly-designed or executed projects.
But Copeland thinks it is riskier for things to remain as they are by not optimising data. He said that some of the biggest failings in the public sector, such as the tragic case of Baby P, were the result of data being held by different agencies and not being joined-up.
Copeland gave some examples of inventive ways in which data has been used by local and regional authorities. In Barking and Dagenham changes were made to the way that licenses were issued that allowed new betting shops to open. This happened because data analysis proved the inkling of some council workers; that there was a strong correlation between new betting shops and vulnerable local residents falling into financial hardship. Additionally, in Bristol tenants in poorly-maintained accommodation were given sensors disguised as ornamental frogs, so the local authority could crowdsource information about damp in residential dwellings in an non-intrusive way.
"Nesta de-risks experimenting with data."
In terms of what Nesta does to assist the implementation of data projects, the innovation centre can work with organisations to “de-risk experimenting with data.” In particular, Nesta is interested in getting several public sector organisations within a city or a region to collaborate with their data because “problems don’t neatly sit within a local authority’s boundaries.”
To this end, it is supporting Offices of Data Analytics around the country. Copeland explained that an Office of Data Analytics (ODA) is a function in a city or region that enables multiple public sector bodies to join up, analyse and act upon their collective data.
In 2016, Nesta launched a pilot with the Greater London Authority for a London ODA and now there are eight around the country. “We’re seeking to support them so that they can learn from each other and hopefully really get better at a city or regional level at making public services better,” he said.
Part of Copeland’s passion for data stems from his prior work at think tank Policy Exchange where his brief was technology policy. “I realised that there’s a lot wrong in the way the role of technology and data is discussed in terms of public sector innovation.”
The way technology is discussed in the public sector needs to be reframed.
He saw conversations taking place about all the amazing technology available, such as blockchain, IoT, cloud computing and big data, but that technology would simply be bolted on to the same old ways of ways of working that the public sector has always used.
Copeland thinks it best to reframe the way that technology is discussed so that conversations began with questions like, "what problem are you trying to solve?" and "what questions are you trying to answer". That should be followed by, "what data and what information do you need?". The final questions should be, "what technology do you need to give you that data so you can work in those ways?"
For Copeland, new technologies and new data methods can help the public sector to reform. However, for that to happen, the exponentially innovative technology that is available to governments and the public sector needs to be matched with equally innovative processes, models and structures to which those technologies are applied.
He concluded by saying that he hopes Nesta will play a role in helping public sector professionals consider the different ways they can reinvent services to be sustainable and the best they can be for the 21st Century.