Over the past 15 months, the global pandemic shone a spotlight on the role of data in the public sector. Data was critical not only in responding to the pandemic, various lockdowns, and assessing symptoms linked to the virus and ultimately the vaccination rollout, but it was also key in directing the public and keeping them informed.
Many global government organizations have recognized the role that data can play in making them more agile and giving them the tools to adjust services as required. The pandemic has accelerated the UK Government’s existing approach to data innovation and has likely helped inform its new National Data Strategy, which intends to remove barriers and improve collaboration across the public sector.
In addition to helping the country navigate the economic, social and healthcare shocks in 2020, the reliance on data during the pandemic has resulted in an even greater appetite for official information by the public than ever before.
The pandemic has accelerated change in the UK Government’s use of data internally and externally. The future of public services will be more data-driven as a result.
How does data benefit government?
The trend towards greater use of data in the UK Government long predates the pandemic and, in many ways, departments have already made significant headway in their modernization agenda.
Thinking back to 2012, when GOV.uk was launched and replaced 2,000 websites with just one, and to 2013, when it committed to a cloud-first policy, the UK Government had made more progress than many private sector businesses of the same scale and complexity.
And the benefits go far beyond cost savings. Fundamentally using data to offer smarter public services could help relieve pressure on departments that are stretched thin. Increased digital tools could also help make it easier for the public to interact with the government, helping to speed up processes in many departments too. Essentially, the real gains lie in how data is processed and managed – which can help the government build a better service for its stakeholders.
And this is already happening today. During lockdown, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) used faster indicators of economic health to provide quicker analysis of GDP compared to what it normally would use. Because national GDP is often published long after the period being analyzed, the organization needed to look at ways to provide a more rapid view of the economy. This included looking at shipping movements, road traffic sensors and VAT.
Through these data sets, it was able to understand the movement of goods into and around the UK as well as exports to paint a picture of economic health. In future, this move towards real-time analysis could help provide more accurate and timely information for the UK Government in all its forms.
One pitfall is reliance on third-party data sources. These, according to the ONS, can include some bias and it is something they have had to work around by being clear on where data has come from and where there may be potential bias. There are opportunities for machine learning for understanding patterns in bias within datasets – key to making faster indicators more useful and accurate for the government.
Finding speed to value in today’s public sector
Looking to the end goal of a truly digital government in a post-pandemic world, there is still much work to be done, and improving the consistency and interoperability of technology adoption across organizations and removing logistical barriers due to legacy systems is a top priority.
To make the case for modernization and accelerate its approach, governments need to shift their thinking. Focusing beyond cost efficiencies will allow transformation to continue to deliver new and better services. Governments now need to look at the power of information and its ability to transform services in new ways while making budgets for those services stretch further.
Data is at the heart of the digital government transformation. The transition to digital government requires careful planning and a focus on outcomes. To be successful, government CIOs must guide the digital journey, tackling both the strategic and tactical challenges with a relentless focus on using and sharing data to make government services more proactive, and its operations more efficient.
The pandemic has made the case for modernization in government even stronger. The first steps taken so far have enabled the public sector to start to achieve some significant results. The future of digital government could improve on these further – providing excellent public services that meet local and national objectives.
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