Over the summer, in partnership with Scott Logic, the Institute for Government (IfG) ran a series of roundtable discussions with senior civil servants and government experts on the topic of Data Sharing in Government. This is the third in a series of blog posts in which I reflect on the key themes that came out of those discussions. You can read the first two posts in the series here: ‘Why you should get the right people in the room from the start’ and ‘Rules help you go faster’.

The response to the pandemic gave us several glimpses of what exemplary data sharing in government looks like. At the IfG roundtable discussion on the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service (CEVPS), a participant recalled:

“The team responsible had a clear mission with support from senior decision-makers and ministers to deliver a service that would save lives. This kind of senior support removed barriers between organisations and gave the team space to build the service, whilst daily meetings with the GDS markdown team to report progress kept the team motivated and accountable.”

In this series of blog posts so far, I’ve explored some of the factors that enabled the CEVPS to succeed: drawing together a multidisciplinary team and working within a clear legislative framework. In this post, I’m going to expand on another key factor in its success: data-literate leadership.

As I’ll explain, this mode of leadership works upwards and downwards to cultivate the conditions in which data can be shared safely, efficiently and securely to improve public services for citizens. I’ll start by defining what I mean by data-literate leadership.

What data-literate leadership looks like

The pandemic was a period in which everything accelerated for the government; fast-changing events required rapid learning and rapid decision-making, all the time. Within these conditions, the programmes led by leaders with particular qualities saw the most success – qualities that form my definition of what a data-literate leader looks like:

  • They know how to work with data, how it is stored and shared, and how to derive meaning from it

  • They understand the contextual use of data within their domain – how actionable insights can be drawn from data to shape delivery

  • They are data storytellers. They are able to shape and communicate a narrative about the importance of data in the overarching strategy of their organisation – about how the data they capture leads to actionable insights, which inform data-driven decision-making, which leads directly to positive impacts and outcomes

The ability to think and act with data is something we expect at all levels of our organisations. A data-literate leader doesn’t need to be a data specialist like a CDO, but they do need a solid understanding of how to interpret data properly and the laws and regulations that govern data use in their domain.

Leaders are in a position to see the wider context affecting their business. How often do we find that two teams in close proximity are tackling similar issues, but have interpreted the data or governance rules differently and made different calls? Leaders receive this conflicting advice and feel frustrated. But these teams don’t have the whole context and tend to advise based on what they can see. Leaders who can hold meaningful conversations about the data with their teams and share their insights based on their unique context are in a much better position to protect themselves and their organisations from serious missteps. This is because those conversations enrich their understanding of the risks and benefits attached to data-driven or governance decisions they must take.

Being able to do a bit of “Fermi thinking” in these situations to quickly sniff out deceptive stats and roughly assess the value and scale of what’s being presented lets leaders zoom in on the problem areas and derive the right meaning or understand the impact. When they’re making decisions that will affect millions of individuals or thousands of businesses, data-literate leaders have this ready grasp of the scope and scale of the data they’re dealing with. In combination with rich experience in their given field, this enables them to make assured, data-driven decisions rapidly; and in collaboration with domain practitioners and data specialists, the speed and assurance of that decision-making increases.

Managing upwards

The quote above from the CEVPS roundtable talked of “senior decision-makers and ministers” clearing the way for the delivery team. For those senior figures to help move people in the same direction required the ministers to have a clear understanding of what was needed, what was permitted within the law, and the risks of delay. Ministers cannot be expected to have deep expertise in data protection legislation, so it is the role of senior leaders in government to tailor made-to-measure guidance for them.

The IfG roundtable on legislation touched on some techniques that civil service leaders use to support and brief ministers, including everyday scenarios and case studies to illustrate the benefits and risks of data sharing. Roundtable participants were seeing definite progress; some ministers were now able to frame the discussion not just around where data sharing is leading to benefits, but also where government inaction is wasting opportunities by blocking data sharing’s full potential.

In order for exemplary data sharing to become the rule rather than the exception, it’s vital that senior leaders in government continue to increase ministers’ data literacy in this way. Given their powers to create and amend legislation, ministers need to be expert enough in the law as it pertains to data sharing and data protection to see the full picture of opportunities, risks and benefits; only then will they be equipped to weigh up the implications of their decisions in this space.

Fostering a data-centric culture

The second half of that quote about the CEVPS referred to removing barriers and giving the team space to build the service, in an environment that allowed the team to feel motivated and accountable. In other words, the leaders of the programme fostered a data-centric culture, one in which there was a clear, shared narrative of the mission and the central role data would play in the positive outcomes for critically vulnerable people. In this culture, data was at the heart of decision-making and everyone, at all levels, understood what the law permits when it comes to sharing data.

In fostering a data-centric culture, it’s essential for leaders to shape and communicate the overarching strategy and a narrative that explains it compellingly to people at all levels, enabling them to understand their role within that narrative. This provides the clarity that enables organisations to ensure they have the data skills and training, data talent, and data tools in place to underpin data-driven decision-making.

The leaders of the NHS COVID-19 Data Store programme were singled out for praise during the roundtable discussions. This leadership team shaped and communicated a clear narrative, and empowered people at all levels to work differently as they established the data store. The NHS teams quickly embraced the opportunity to work in more collaborative and agile ways. Junior staff felt equipped and empowered to have the necessary conversations with third-party and private-sector organisations that would become partners in the data store. And the more agile ways of working allowed them to move at the accelerated pace the circumstances demanded.

The service aimed to bring multiple different data sources from across the health system in England in one place to help with the COVID response – providing ‘a single version of the truth’. Once it was up and running, data was brought to the centre of decision-making like never before. Silos were broken down between teams, and people felt empowered to bring their NHS domain knowledge to bear in turning data into actionable insights. More and more leaders recognised the need to become data literate, and everyone grew more comfortable working with data. Indeed, an acceleration in supply generated greater demand; the data store went from providing weekly reports of eight-week-old data to providing daily feeds. In the case of the vaccination programme, it was an hourly feed, enabling timely decisions that ensured the rollout ran smoothly.

We also saw some counterexamples from the pandemic and in the IfG roundtable discussion on counter-fraud, participants expressed the view that civil servants at some organisations lacked the data literacy they needed to perform their roles effectively. Under pressure to deliver during the early stages of the pandemic, some civil servants were unsure of what data needed to be shared; this limited the quality and quantity of data available to non-government analysts in some key projects. There was also the view that the civil servants had no experience in establishing things like the counter-fraud data-sharing agreements required to share data across organisations and the financial sector. The consequences of these pockets of low data literacy are now well known.

How we help

At Scott Logic, we’re very proud to be bringing our data expertise to bear in supporting government departments to improve services for citizens. We strive to help increase the data literacy of the departments we work with, leaving them equipped with the tools and expertise required to be self-sufficient once our work comes to an end.

The Insights Platform we built for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office harnessed our many years of experience in building innovative, powerful and user-centric interfaces for financial services clients. This platform is facilitating data-driven decision-making throughout the department in the face of ever-changing world events. With our three-step process to help clients Locate, Understand and Surface data, we’re supporting the Department for Work and Pensions to design and build services that process and share data with front-line services across the department, improving the citizen experience.

As our work with government departments continues to grow, we’re ambitious to do everything we can to turn those glimpses of exemplary data sharing during the pandemic into the daily reality of everyone involved in delivering public services.

Join us for ‘Lessons from data sharing during the pandemic’

On Wednesday 8 February, I’ll be speaking on a panel at an IfG event with fellow panellists Ming Tang (National Director of Data and Analytics for NHS England and Improvement), Juliet Whitworth (Head of Research and Information, Local Government Association) and Paul Shepley (Data Scientist at the Institute for Government). We’ll explore themes and case studies from the upcoming IfG report, produced in partnership with Scott Logic: Data sharing during the pandemic.

Register here to join in person or online