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July 10, 2023

Encouraging Creativity and Innovation In Public Sector Data

Caroline Carruthers


Data is one of the most valuable assets an organisation has and the public sector holds an extraordinary amount of data. However, public sector organisations are generally yet to realise the full value of the data at their disposal.

In order to achieve data maturity, the public sector needs to improve data governance and data literacy among its employees. If they can do this, several goals can be met, including driving efficiency, reducing costs, boosting data security, ensuring data ethics, and streamlining public sector services.

So, why is public sector data currently vastly under-utilised and how can data challenges be overcome?

Data Improving the Public’s Experiences

A concrete data strategy helps to improve engagement across all areas of public sector organisations by providing a deeper understanding of where improvements can be made, risks reduced and tangible business value delivered.

Vitally, the data collected can be used to better serve the public through innovation and improved analysis. See the recently announced 100 “most dangerous” men in London list created by The Met Police as an example of how the public sector is using data to take an increasingly proactive approach to reducing crime. Another example is the NHS developing plans for a single source of health data with the aims of improving the quality of care for patients.

The public sector has needed to improve its data sharing capabilities for years to share information effectively between different NHS Trusts, the police, schools, etc. in order to gain valuable insights and ultimately increase efficiency and even use predictive modelling to unlock money savings and improve the public’s experience.

(everything possible/Shutterstock)

Data Doesn’t Have To Be a Risky Business!

Today, public services must grapple with increasingly wide-ranging, complex, and interconnected data challenges.  A lot of this stems from challenges faced when dealing with personal data (specifically health data in the case of the NHS) and disclosing it on a large scale, which means there is a risk that without proper technical safeguards, privacy infractions could take place, such as data breaches that happen when data transfers are poorly organised.

When sharing data, public sector organisations are also taking a legal risk, and we have seen large fines given out recently where organisations have breached data regulations, for example, when the Cabinet Office was fined £500,000 for a data leak which breached data protection law.

As a result, before data sharing takes place, the public sector must consider their overall compliance with data protection legislation and assess any risks with the planned data strategy to limit the danger of data breaches, but also promote public trust in the data sharing plans.

These types of risks are well documented. Controversially, I think the more pressing risk is that the public sector is being so overly cautious when it comes to data that it is missing out on the vital benefits mentioned above. With data, there is a real need to be innovative to ensure a strategy is as efficient as possible, so, a big issue in the public sector is that organisations can be overly cautious due to worries of what could go wrong and the subsequent ridicule from the public.  Being cautious and using the right data plan is key, but boundaries also need to be pushed to harness the full power of public data.

With the right strategy, data sharing can be managed correctly to reduce risks. The public sector just needs to be clear on the latest regulations, while not overcomplicating the rules. The most obvious thing  to remember is that GDPR requires organisations to explain how they process and use data. Practically, this means only using data for the reasons they lay out clearly.

Essentially, the key to understanding how regulation works to avoid confusion and uncertainty is improving data literacy to promote a co-ordinated, efficient data strategy.

So Much Than a Well-Written Strategy

Unfortunately, public sector institutions currently lack the foundations and data literacy necessary to carry out data transformation projects effectively. In the recent Data Maturity Index, which analysed data from hundreds of data leaders around the world to shine a light on the true state of data maturity across every industry and sector, it was discovered that 64% of data leaders in both the public and private sector believe almost none of their employees are data literate.

This shows that public sector organisations need to be more aware of data threats, storage and strategy as they tackle new challenges, and this requires so much more than a well written data strategy.

Plans, processes, and systems are all important tools in getting the best out of data, but what really makes or breaks an organisation’s data strategy is the people using it every day.

For a data strategy to work, those using it must be able to answer fundamental questions:

  • Why is data valuable?
  • How can we question and interrogate it?
  • What is every individual’s personal responsibility to data?

I’m not just talking about CDO’s (for whom this might be most relevant), but every employee who interacts with data at every level (from those taken patient data at the front desk, to those analysing vaccination data etc.)

The Purpose of Data

The Data Maturity Assessment also found that 40% of data leaders admit their organisations have little or no data governance framework. This significantly limits the value they’re getting from their data, as understanding the real purpose of data, and how a strategy can be developed is what enables organisations to go beyond the ordinary and really harness the potential of data-driven business transformation.

You can read more about the Carruthers + Jackson Maturity Assessment here.

The public sector needs to improve its understanding of the purpose of data to better appreciate that quality management and governance doesn’t limit freedom to use data creatively.

In fact, the proper use of data is really about being innovative and recognising the greater impact it can have on businesses. If the public sector continues to see data governance as the need for a set of comprehensive rules that keep data within narrow and easily controllable confines due to fear of legal repercussions and public outrage, it risks missing out on the many benefits of a creative, successful data strategy.

Building a Solid Data Foundation

Public services make countless decisions each day – from how to allocate budgets, to which policy to prioritise. These decisions could largely be improved by access to high- quality data to encourage innovation and improve accuracy. If the necessary data transformation was to take place it could create societal benefits spanning everything from less pollution, to improved tracking of disease outbreaks to lower costs and  transforming citizen experiences.

The next steps to achieving improved data maturity seem complicated and laden with security and legal risks. However, by focussing on how people are working with data, and improving understanding around data regulation and governance, the public sector can achieve a successful data transformation.

About the author: Caroline Carruthers is a renowned globally recognized data leader and co-founder and CEO of the data consultancy firm Carruthers + Jackson. With extensive exposure managing large complex data and technology transformations from both internal and consulting positions, Caroline brings real life experience and knowledge to coach and train organizations, business leaders, and data professionals on successful modern data approaches and leading strategies.

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