Four reasons local government data got difficult.

Pressures on local government are well documented; the pressures faced by local government research (by which I mean analytics in all its flavours) maybe less so?

I believe there are four key challenges we currently face.

1. There is more data than ever before

Surely the most self evident truth facing anyone working in any field, let alone one in which data is an important currency. Every service (from Abandoned shopping trolleys to Zoos) adds realms of transactional data daily to the corpus of local government knowledge. Changing technologies allow more immediate feedback, more automation of transactions, more sensing all create more and more data.This creates opportunities, possibilities and a popular narrative that Something Should Be Done with this data, which creates increased demand. We are asked to anticipate this demand and help decision makers understand the opportunities, challenges and risks in all this data.

2. There are new disciplines and technologies

and how.

“Big Data”, “Data Visualisation”, “Guided Analytics”, “Open Data”, “Data Science”, “Personal Analytics”, “Predictive Analytics”, “Machine Learning”, “Risk stratification”, “Natural-language question answering”…

are just a handful of the phrases and concepts doing the rounds. Some will inevitably become little more than redundant jargon while some may cause the same sort of disruptive shift as did when it rendered my first job in this field (taking crime data out of a database to do longitudinal analysis) effectively pointless.

Local government is often painted as being behind the times, but the market will catch up to us, even if we don’t catch up with it. Our citizens, our partners and our service providers will be live to these technologies and so will we if we want to continue to work with them.

3. We have fewer resources

This isn’t a place to debate the politics and practice of public sector austerity. Neither, however, is it possible not to consider the size (both in ¬£s and narrative) of the budget reductions experienced by the sector in recent years. Research is the very definition of a back office function, its value lies in influence and abstracted outcomes, rather than its output. It’s not hard to see why it could be a particularly tempting function to consider as an “efficiency saving”.

It has never been more critical to demonstrate ongoing impact and effectiveness of our work, particularly in the light of the previously mentioned demand pressures. As well as being live to new developments we have to strive to ensure that there is a genuine and politically articulated value to our work.

4. Local government reform has arrived

Significant Local Government reform is happening, even it’s not been so structured as it has been in the past. The Devolution agenda is creating new public bodies, with new powers and has the potential over time to radically reshape what local government can do. The opportunities held within a new public body to react to the above pressures can’t be underestimated, but it won’t do so by behaving in the same ways as before. These new ways of working will engender new approaches to research and analytics, but what will they be?

What happens next?

it’s clear there are a number of distinct approaches emerging as to how local areas are responding to these challenges. A review of these will form some future posts.

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