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Data use by local government has accelerated during COVID-19 - but can momentum be sustained?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 4, 2021
The UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation highlights a number of barriers to continued, successful data use for local government beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data scientist in glasses and pink shirt through touchscreen display, with wood background © WAYHOME studio - shutterstock
(© WAYHOME studio - shutterstock)

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that government institutions can provide better services for citizens when they have access to, and know how to effectively use, public datasets. The response to the novel Coronavirus has been strongly supported by access to health data, data sharing, hospital data, local services data and population data (to name a few). 

Local government has shown that when it is given a mandate to use data more effectively, where there is a strong need, it can respond quickly. However, the progress made over the past year or so shouldn't be taken for granted, as there are a number of barriers to sustained momentum and continued progress. 

These are the findings released today by the UK's Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which recently held a forum with local government leaders and data experts to get a better understanding of how data has been used during the COVID-19 pandemic and what is needed for future success. 

Some examples of how local authorities have used data over the past few months to respond to the threat of COVID-19 include: 

  • Hackney Council combining internal and external datasets for the first time to help them identify residents who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as an illness

  • The use of a new ‘VIPER' tool by local authorities in Essex, which enabled emergency services to share data in real time during the pandemic

  • An agreement between London authorities to share data about children in receipt of free school meals, allowing them to better be supported while schools were closed

Attendees of the Forum agreed that the pandemic had spurred a "significant increase" in the use of data over a short period of time, and from a low baseline. However, there is no guarantee that the support for increased use of data and data sharing during a public health crisis will continue once the pandemic is ‘over' - raising questions of how data should continue to be used and how local authorities can retain the trust of citizens. 

Commenting on the report, Edwina Dunn, Board member for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, said: 

Almost every aspect of local government has required at least temporary reform during the pandemic. Data and data-driven technologies have played an important part in enabling local councils to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, helping to inform public health measures, protect the most vulnerable in local communities, and keep public services running. With the right support, councils can retain and build on efforts to utilise data effectively, in a way that is in keeping with the expectations of their residents, to provide local services communities can rely on. 

Sustaining momentum

Whilst the overriding message from local government appears to be that data using during the pandemic has changed for the better, there is a question as to whether this ambition for sophisticated data use can be sustained once the public health crisis is over. Or, could it even be accelerated given the current support and momentum if/when the crisis dissipates? 

According to the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, those involved in providing evidence are hesitant to say that the progress made in 2020 will continue, with concern that data practices will return to the status-quo. Why? Some of the issues raised include: 

  • Access could be repealed - Access to certain datasets during COVID-19 could be taken away once the health crisis is over, despite them having long-term value for local authorities in supporting local residents. However, leaders and experts do acknowledge that support for access amongst residents might wane when there is no longer an emergency. 

  • Enthusiasm from senior decision makers - The enthusiasm for data use during the pandemic, particularly amongst senior leaders, could fade and it isn't yet clear whether there has been a long-term shift in mindsets. Leaders may also be more cautious once the pandemic is over, given the potential for controversial data use. 

  • First mover risks - Most participants in the forum said that they were wary of being a ‘first mover' in data use, particularly when considering the use of algorithms, which have become increasingly contentious. Fear of grabbing headlines and losing public trust can lead to delays and the termination of data-driven programmes, the report notes. Local authorities don't want to be an outlier in practice. 

  • Budgetary constraints - Local authorities have suffered huge cuts to budgets in recent years and investing in data projects and skills is expensive work. This might be an inhibitor to future work. 

  • Poor data quality - Local authority datasets don't have the best reputation for being of the highest quality, which restricts the effective use of data. Data is often incomplete, duplicated or stored in spreadsheets rather than databases. This clearly poses a challenge. 

  • Skills - Attracting and retaining people with skills in data collection and analysis is a huge challenge for local authorities. These skills don't come cheap and experts are also sometimes nervous about public sector projects, which can lead to public scrutiny if things go wrong. Participants in the forum said that a "culture of no" is more able to take hold in the absence of qualified staff. 

  • Legal clarity - Local authority data teams are not always aware of what is legally permissible in the collection and use of data, particularly personal data. Current data laws leave much to the interpretation of data protection officers. A lack of clarity around what is ‘legally possible' will restrict progress. 

  • A lack of demand from frontline teams - There is concern that the results of data analysis are not being used effectively by frontline service providers, for example housing and social care teams. The consensus seems to be that frontline practitioners sometimes have a lack of faith in data driven analysis and prefer to rely on their own judgement. This is coupled with challenges around data teams lacking the necessary feedback loops to know whether their findings are being well used. 

In addition to the above, the forum also found that there are significant issues that remain as it relates to data sharing post-pandemic. It notes: 

While the discussion largely centred on the obstacles to data use, the same barriers were also seen as hindering data sharing, both to and from local authorities. Data sharing between local authorities and other public sector organisations (e.g. police forces) has historically been piecemeal and difficult, as highlighted by a recent CDEI report on data sharing in central government. Participants at our Forum pointed to excessive risk aversion from both data providers and recipients - something made worse by a lack of incentives, as well as confusion in relation to what can legally be shared.

My take

There are no easy answers to the above challenges, but there is a risk that if they are not addressed in the immediate future then the moment for long-standing change will pass us by. The benefits are clearly there, but issues around funding, budgets, political will, legal clarity and citizen consensus need to be addressed now, right at the heart of central government. Leadership, money and clear legal frameworks are essential - and they need to be established now. 

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