Capita’s Dave Tonks and Chris Mooney discuss how public sector organisations can apply an incremental approach to data integration and deliver improved public services.
The digital age is all about creating better efficiency, effectiveness and transparency, and in many areas across the public sector new digital solutions have greatly improved services. However, when it comes to major data transformation projects, we’re seeing challenges and blockers to change associated with how data is managed, effectively stored, and accessed across systems and agencies.
My colleague Chris Mooney helped Police Scotland on their data transformation journey, so I asked him why some public sector organisations are seemingly now being held back by their data?
“With the best of intentions organisations moved from paper-based operations to digital systems, with software vendors supplying databases and applications to streamline and improve services. But digitisation has grown out of control over the last 20-25 years and has effectively created a series of digital silos with multiple logins which have hampered people’s ability to get information.
If you think about the paper age, people would just go to a filing cabinet and all the information would be there in a folder. The digital age was meant to make things more efficient, and this has happened within discrete areas, but the lack of an overarching design is now increasingly holding people back. At Capita we’re helping to ensure that technology remains a key enabler by essentially freeing up the data from those silos.”
If we stick with the filing cabinet analogy our challenge is to bring data together and join it up, either by putting data integration capabilities over the top of these ‘filing cabinets’ or by creating one big filing cabinet and moving copies of the data across and storing it there. Transforming data and joining it up is what we’ve done for Police Scotland and Greater Manchester Police, and the same strategy and data mechanics can be applied across the public and private sector.
The value of joining data
With policing it’s incredibly important to be able to get a complete picture of an individual and their interactions with the service to date. Their data is often stored in multiple legacy systems – for example the crimes they’ve committed are in one place, but their custody or vulnerability records might be held in a separate system.
To bring the data together matching records accurately for the same person becomes crucial. In this respect however data quality is an important issue, as you’re relying on users to input details correctly across a number of different systems. Being able to put rules, logic and probability around that process, in order to join data up and get a single POLE view is where data expertise and capability adds real value.
In local government, joined up data can give citizens a better experience, as they ideally want to be able to access a single site and see all their interactions with their council. From a service provider’s perspective there is a requirement for social care, housing and education etc to be joined up. By bringing data together, multiple agencies can see the complete picture and provide better, joined-up support.
Start small and deliver value quickly
To achieve these types of benefits we always advocate an incremental approach to data integration projects, where you start small and deliver value quickly through a proof of concept or pilot activity. That’s exactly the path we followed with Police Scotland where we are bringing data together from eight regional police forces into one central system. We looked first at migrating data from one region into the master system, and then enhanced the approach by identifying the means to the merge data for individuals as part of the migration process. The key to success is of course the development of the optimal technical solution, but to do that it’s vital that business stakeholders are fully engaged and that a mutual agreement is reached as to what’s right for the organisational context.
Chris is clear about why data projects can run into problems: “Most data integrations fail because as stakeholders you need to understand and address the sins of the past - where data has been inputted incorrectly. You need to be willing to do the hard work and get into the weeds of understanding data and not make high level assumptions.”
When organisations create IT systems, they don’t often think ahead to how they may need the data to link to other systems in future. The public sector is getting much better at being aware of the importance of data management, but it requires investment, time and technology.
It’s important to start with a vision of what your organisation wants the future to look like, what data is important to collect and what isn’t? When thinking about new systems the focus is often on functionality and what it does for you, but not necessarily the data layer underneath it, whether it is designed to enable future needs and how easy it is to access and integrate. Once you get data foundations and management right you can start thinking about using AI, machine learning and looking at patterns in data, which can open up limitless opportunities. To be successful, it’s important to consider your data strategy at the same time as your IT strategy, and work in partnership with your suppliers.
At Capita, we emphasise the importance of interworking and collaboration with our clients, removing barriers and ensuring that there is a common culture that embraces detail and fosters success.
This article was initially published as part of tech UK’s Digital Justice Week 2022
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