Forward-looking Data Capabilities Are Needed to Transform Policymaking At a Local Level

Team working on blockchain technology. Connecting a large cube Future Technology Concept Blockchain Cryptocurrency. isometric vector illustration.

Veronica Hera, Sarah Chaytor, Jeremy Williams, Bonnie Buyuklieva

Enhancing local data is one of the five pillars identified by the UK Government to support levelling up as “a key enabler of successful spatial policy”. This sees attention being given on improving local-level data capabilities, as well as leveraging data to support the six ‘capitals’ – physical, human, intangible, financial, social and institutional – identified in the 2022 Levelling Up White Paper.

In addition to these identified needs, the paper also notes that the current lack of comparable data across the UK is “reducing the scope to learn from the innovative policy approaches devolution supports”. Furthermore, the Government Statistical Service’s Subnational Data Strategy has emphasised the importance of more granular and harmonised subnational statistics, recognising that devolution of policy and governance needs to be accompanied by greater local data capacity and capability.

To address these needs, the International Public Policy Observatory, partnering with UCL’s Department of Information Studies, is working on a project with five partner authorities to help improve both local data capacity and comparability. Collaborating with key stakeholders from across different levels of governments, the case studies-based work will produce scalable insights and recommendations for better local data governance which can be rolled out nationwide.

Harnessing the power of local data

In the context of acute financial constraints, there are increasing calls to focus on digital transformations in local government to help deliver improved services and for a Local Government Digital Service comparable to the UK Government Digital Service.

There are also growing initiatives to improve the accessibility, deployment, and use of data to address local challenges, such as the University of Nottingham’s ‘City as Lab’ PARM project which provides easy-to-digest visualisations of local data, or the development of a city data platform for London combining multiple forms of data from different sources.

This awareness of the importance of data for local policymaking is not confined to the UK; efforts at EU level, for example, have focused on fostering local data spaces to improve quality of life in cities.  Amidst this growing consensus of the importance of local-level data is a concomitant awareness of the need to improve the quality, accessibility and use thereof.

Partnering with local authorities to strengthen local data use

IPPO’s ongoing work with local authorities exploring how to enhance local data use has identified four key challenges from experience of both national and regional-specific datasets. Some of these relate to an ongoing need to ‘get the basics right’ in terms of developing consistent standards and practice rather than relying on ‘workarounds’, while others confront more complex data and information challenges for policy. These include issues such as data availability constraints and time lags; inconsistencies and discontinuity; skills shortages in data teams, and the time pressure of delivery deadlines. Our work with stakeholders has also uncovered that it can be difficult to effectively use national or regional datasets in conjunction with the administrative data collected by local councils. We set out more information about these four key challenges below.

Digging into challenges for local data use

Challenge 1: Consistency in statutory responsibilities for data

Varying statutory responsibilities relating to data across the UK mean different data-gathering imperatives for different government bodies. Where data is not a statutory responsibility, there are insufficient resources to invest in improving its availability. This can make achieving policy goals that require access to datasets without statutory requirements challenging – particularly for tricky cross-cutting issues requiring partnership working. Overcoming these barriers requires support and agreement from the authorities and institutions that do have control over data, and which may often be in a different tier of government such as the case of a local authority seeking data held by a national government department.

Challenge 2: Alignment in data practices and proficiencies

There is also considerable variation in terms of understanding and applying good data practices, for example, in the availability and sharing of data and training and capacity building for staff.  At present, it is not possible to consistently apply data standards across all levels of government and across different geographical areas within the UK. This also impedes the ability to deploy data across comparable geographic levels, as well as to share data across different levels of government.

Challenge 3: Timeliness and granularity of data

Data-informed policy requires timely and up-to-date data to allow rapid access and real-time monitoring, and this is not currently possible for all local authorities. The timeliness of data also matters for programme evaluation, with lags in available data meaning that impact assessments can take 2 or 3 years. While anecdotal evidence from the Covid-19 period suggests that it is possible to deliver faster data release to inform policymaking, it is not clear if this is possible on a sustained basis at scale.  In addition, available UK-wide datasets offer insufficient granularity, resulting in local data teams improvising methodologies and ‘workarounds’ to work with higher-level data but apply it locally, resulting in inaccuracies and approximations.

Challenge 4: Data sharing, interdependencies and collaborative cultures

Data sharing, even within particular regions, is challenging, hampering accessibility, use, and analytical capacity. Creating a shared culture of collaborative information spaces would enable data sharing across different teams in local or combined authorities and support a greater understanding of interdependencies and the mutual impact of actions and decisions across authorities.

Addressing the challenge

So what can be done? Our early discussions have identified three ambitions for local authorities which would also deliver national benefit.

Firstly, improving data capacity and capabilities – that is, the resources and skills needed to access and use data would mean improved and more consistent practice in data use across the UK. It would also help to strengthen local policymaking, including monitoring progress towards and addressing national challenges through local actions.

Secondly, improving data sharing – both between local authorities within a combined authority and across different authorities across the UK – would strengthen data accessibility, quality assurance and use (thus supporting internal capacity) while also improving the comparison of data across localities.

Thirdly, improving the ability to combine different datasets from different bodies would enable enhanced deployment of data from different authorities and datasets to allow more holistic consideration and greater specificity of the pressing issues being addressed. In all cases, it is likely that local and central government will need to work together to establish mutually beneficial partnerships which address long-term needs around the sustainable maintenance and use of data across the UK.

Next Steps

IPPO’s Local Data for Policy fellows are currently embedded in five partner authorities across the UK: the West Midlands Combined Authority, the Greater London Authority, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Belfast City Council, and Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council.

Over the coming days, we will publish case study articles from each of our Fellows, setting out insights from the day-to-day data for policy issues they are working on in their partner authority. The project will also involve further engagement and co-production of policy options with stakeholders in the coming months, including via a roundtable, and conclude with the publication of a final report containing key findings and scalable recommendations in Autumn 2024.