How Data-Driven Decisions Could Support Devolved Policymaking in the West Midlands

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This article forms part of our Data for Policy series. As part of IPPO and UCL’s Department of Information Studies’ Building Local Data Capabilities project, five Data for Policy Fellows are currently embedded in partner authorities across the United Kingdom and will write on their experiences and insights on the challenges of using data in policymaking.

Martin Gozzi

March 2024 marks the first anniversary of the ‘trailblazer’ deeper devolution deal agreed by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and the UK government. 

This deal equipped the WMCA and its constituent local authorities with new powers and enhanced local control over five key areas of delivery: local growth and place, local transport, housing and regeneration, adult skills and housing retrofit.

The Journey of Devolution in the West Midlands

The West Midlands is among the first set of local regions to have secured a devolution deal with central government, since Greater Manchester announced its agreement in 2014.

In 2015, a settlement was agreed to give local leaders greater power to drive growth in the region. Until this time, most of the combined authority’s funding came from central government grants that were earmarked for specific purposes within short timescales. As a result, local authorities had limited autonomy in policy design and faced challenges in making long-term strategic investments due to the lack of assurance of ongoing funding.

To further strengthen the 2015 devolution agreement, in 2023, the WMCA and the UK government negotiated a deeper deal that provided the West Midlands with a single funding settlement tailored to local priorities.

From 2025, this investment will provide WMCA with greater autonomy in controlling funds and replacing multiple frameworks previously managed by different government departments.

A New Strategic Approach to Economic Growth

With the single settlement in place, the WMCA will gain more flexibility and control over economic growth, alongside enhanced accountability arrangements. 

The WMCA and the government oversee the delivery of outcome targets during each spending review period. Currently, the WMCA collaborates with the government to develop funding and outcome mechanisms, aligned to key delivery targets.

Under the single settlement, the WMCA will receive funding for up to five years, instead of the previous one- or two-year periods. Additionally, instead of receiving funding designated for specific purposes, the WMCA is now responsible for achieving outcome targets by the end of the Spending Review (SR) period.

These changes will provide the combined authority with significantly more flexibility to design and implement policies tailored to the region’s needs and enhance its capacity to make long-term investment decisions.

This approach enables both immediate and sustained policy interventions, prioritising funding where it is most needed. It also allows the combined authority to address ongoing inequalities and challenges across the West Midlands more effectively, which was previously difficult due to the lack of secure, long-term funding.

Empowering Strategic Decision-Making Through Data

For the WMCA, the consolidation of funding into a single settlement centralises control over policy implementation, delivery, and outcomes.

This shift significantly heightens the responsibility of the combined authority, necessitating robust evidence of intervention outcomes.

Data access and management, once scattered across different organisations, must now be streamlined to enable the CA to make informed decisions.

However, while leveraging data and evidence to formulate policy solutions across key areas of delivery is crucial, it’s insufficient on its own.

Effective policies also require contextual adaptation, robust implementation capacity, and continuous monitoring and evaluation. Good governance is essential to navigate challenges and ensure policies respond to local needs.

Devolution must respond to locally set objectives, which, in the West Midlands, is exemplified by the West Midlands Inclusive Growth Framework. This framework represents a deliberate approach to economic growth, which tracks the pace and impact of economic development on the population, place, and environment. To meet these inclusive goals, policies need to be equitable and inclusive, and consider marginalised groups. This will in turn mean that data-driven policies are practical, sustainable, and truly effective.

To enable this approach, the combined authority needs access to the right data (i.e., outcomes, outputs, and perceptions), at the right time, and at the right spatial significance.

This is one of the challenges that I will address in collaboration with the Head of Research, Intelligence, and Inclusive Growth at the WMCA and the WMCA’s Research and Intelligence Community of Practice (RICOP).

Navigating the Data Landscape: Challenges and Opportunities

When it comes to local delivery, data can be both a source of strength and a weakness.

Accessing and utilising the right data effectively can help understand citizens’ needs, develop effective services, and allocate funds for the greatest impact. However, challenges in capability, data access, and delivery time can also arise.

The WMCA has developed a plan to outline how it will address some of its research, intelligence, analysis and data challenges.

The Research, Intelligence, Analysis, and Data (RIAD) Implementation Plan will focus on the following key areas:

  • Data: Bringing together qualitative and quantitative data held by various organisations.
  • Analytical tools: Universalising platforms and tools for collecting, analysing, and visualising data.
  • Data architecture: Improving the storing, arranging, and managing of data assets.
  • Digital and data skills: Introducing a consistent framework for digital, data, and technology professions.
  • Intelligence and analysis: Using data to generate insights and evidence.
  • Research products: Producing outputs to inform and communicate key issues to stakeholders.

Supporting the WMCA: My Role and Ambitions

In collaboration with the WMCA’s Research and Intelligence Community of Practice (RICOP), an internal cross-organisational network of researchers and analysts across the WMCA, my role within this fellowship is twofold.

Firstly, I support the WMCA in accessing data and evidence to develop their outcomes work, aligning with the deeper devolution deal and the single settlement.

By accessing data at the opportune moment, the combined authority can promptly use evidence to establish informed targets, demonstrating its effectiveness in achieving its priorities.

For instance, access to comprehensive economic data can facilitate targeted investment strategies, while transportation data can inform infrastructure development projects aimed at improving connectivity and mobility.

Additionally, insights from housing data can guide policies to enhance affordability and quality, while educational data can inform initiatives to address skill gaps and improve workforce readiness.

To do so, improved access to data from all the directorates of the combined authority and its constituent local authorities is crucial.

I will help facilitate with support from the expertise of my wider team at UCL’s Dept of Information Studies lead by Dr Bonnie Buyuklieva and Jeremy Williams at the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO), and drawing on established information studies methods, including tracing information flows and governance hierarchies.

Secondly, my work aims to build more robust data capabilities across the entire combined authority. I am connecting with various internal stakeholders across the WMCA to gather a deeper understanding of their data needs. By synthesising these conversations, I hope to facilitate collaboration between the WMCA, its constituent local authorities, and UK government departments to build and strengthen networks that ease data access, build trust and accountability in data usage, and strengthen local data capabilities more broadly.

Fostering Data Access and Collaboration for Enhanced Outcomes

While the deeper devolution deal and the single settlement provide the WMCA with more freedom for funding distribution, it is essential to recognise where the most help is needed. Accessing the right data at the right time enables the WMCA to make better-informed decisions to deliver improved outcomes for residents and communities. Greater autonomy, alongside greater accountability, ensures that devolution ultimately benefits residents by creating a better-connected West Midlands that is fairer, greener, healthier, and responsive to local needs and aspirations.

Initial Insights and Future Directions

My interest in social justice drives me to find solutions that not only deepen the data capability of the WMCA and its local authorities but also resonate with local communities at their core. Although six months may not suffice for delivering a large-scale project effectively across the entire combined authority, my support within the teams working on delivery enables me to understand where the most capacity is needed. This understanding empowers me to undertake a project that supports building stronger data capability and aligns with the Inclusive Growth Framework.

Empowering growth through deeper devolution in the West Midlands requires a strategic approach, where data is harnessed for informed decision-making and collaboration is fostered to enhance outcomes. The single funding settlement marks a significant step forward, providing the WMCA with the flexibility and control needed to drive economic growth and deliver tangible benefits for residents. The WMCA is poised to create a fairer, greener, and healthier West Midlands, responsive to the needs and aspirations of its communities by addressing information challenges and building robust data capabilities.

Martin Gozzi is a Data for Policy Fellow at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) hosted through the Dept of Information Studies, UCL and International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO). With experience as a Data Analyst at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and a Research Assistant in the University of Winchester’s Health and Wellbeing Department, Martin has a strong foundation in data analysis and social justice research. Their academic focus on queer and trans studies drives their commitment to fair access to mental health services for the LGBTQ+ community. In their fellowship, Martin will support WMCA in enhancing data maturity and capabilities across the organisation, aligning with WMCA’s goal of inclusive growth.