Gemma Diamond: Radical action needed on data

Gemma Diamond: Radical action needed on data

Gemma Diamond

Gemma Diamond, audit director at Audit Scotland, discusses how data is often seen as a burden for public bodies, rather than the key to better policy decisions, and the action needed to build data as a national asset.

Scotland is facing enormous challenges. Inequality is on the rise, an ageing population is increasing the pressure on health and care services, the cost-of-living crisis is putting a strain on household budgets, while the climate emergency is demanding unprecedented change. There is also much still to do to meet the ambitions of Christie and focus on prevention and longer-term outcomes.

Data is a vital tool that can help leaders tackle these complex and longstanding issues. It can help us know who to assist, where resources will have most impact, and how to plan better. But right now, data is often seen as a burden for public bodies, rather than the key to better policy decisions.

People producing data are often stuck in a cycle of reporting for reporting’s sake. Often those people capturing data are on the frontline, already hard-pressed, and don’t see its wider benefits, leading to missing or poor-quality data. There are also concerns that data will be misused if shared.

Public sector leaders, too, are not clear on what data they have and how to use it. Or they find that the data they want is simply missing or doesn’t exist.

This all uses precious staff resources but without delivering the value and insights we need.

What we do know is that when public bodies get data right it can make difficult things easier.

For example, during the pandemic, new digital tools were developed to allocate and schedule vaccine appointments. That shift was enabled by using and accessing data in new and different ways. Internationally, the Scandinavians have shown us how national data registries allow researchers to link up health with other social and economic indicators to inform policy.

However, back in Scotland, reports for the Accounts Commission and Auditor General have repeatedly called out the existence of data gaps across a wide variety of policy areas.

Often, we, and other public sector bodies, simply cannot get the specific evidence we need to decide whether money has been well spent.

So how can we change things?
Bold decisions are needed if Scotland is to build data as a national asset.

First, there is a need to weed out duplication. And then to quickly focus limited resources on the preventative measures (and data) needed to tackle Scotland’s biggest problems, like the health of the nation. It’s inevitable that some things will have to stop to allow that prioritisation to happen. Let’s be clear, capturing robust reusable data will need investment and resources.

Building data skills and a data culture across public bodies is also essential, and we know there is a will to change.

Audit Scotland recently hosted a roundtable from across different parts of the public sector and from academia. For some, the exponential growth in data and attempts to manage it have created ‘a bit of a mess’ and we are not where we want to be.

But there was also recognition that there are strengths in Scotland. As a small country, we can build on the collaborative efforts and rich learning we saw during the pandemic, by sharing best practice across sectors. Harnessing the strengths of our universities and private sector is important, as well as the talent of those working in data across public services.

Things are happening:

  • A new data strategy for health and social care is due to be published in early 2023.
  • Public bodies are participating in a data maturity pathway to understand where they are and what they need to do.
  • There is emerging work on data standards and developing data catalogues in local government.
  • Innovative programmes such as the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF, is also mapping data based on ‘what matters’ for children and families.
  • This all helps achieve a more co-ordinated approach. But it is decisive action that makes the difference.

Public sector leaders have a vital role in all of this, strategy and action on data must have buy-in from the top. We have set out some specific things for leaders to consider now.

It’s also crucial that the public and users of data and statistics are involved, and that there is transparency in how data is being used. People need to trust and understand what is happening with data and how decisions are being made.

In the meantime, how the public sector is addressing data gaps and building data as a national asset will be a continued focus for Audit Scotland.

Gemma Diamond is an audit director at Audit Scotland.

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