How Local Authorities are Using Data to Solve Problems Like Homelessness
The devolution agenda is likely here to stay. Local councils are closer to their communities and are often better-placed than central government to grapple with their most complex challenges.
To better understand the data challenges faced by local government, and to surface the opportunities that exist through devolution, Nesta’s UK 2040 Options hosted a panel event in late November 2023. Chaired by Nesta’s James Plunkett, panel members were Stephen Aldridge (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), Cate McLaurin (Public Digital), Gavin Freeguard (freelance consultant and host of the Data Bites event series), Wajid Shafiq (Xantura), and Natalia Merritt (Maidstone Borough Council).
Preventing homelessness through harnessing the power of locally held data
Data is both a strength and a weakness when it comes to local delivery. Everything, from the provision of social care for vulnerable children to collection of council tax, produces a huge quantity of data. This data could have huge benefits for councils; helping them better understand their citizens’ needs and behaviours, targeting services more effectively, stopping what isn’t working, and allocating resources to where they have the biggest impact. But in practice, it can be challenging for councils to use this data effectively. It can sit in siloes, and local authorities can lack the capability, time, or investment to draw out what the data means and to utilise it as effectively as possible to improve public service outcomes.
But it quickly became clear that effective use of data by a local council can be transformative. Natalia Merritt spoke about Maidstone Borough Council’s partnership with Xantura to create Oneview: a multi-agency identification system that enables Maidstone to understand which households may be imminently at risk of homelessness. It uses data and predictive analytics to understand the risk factors that contribute to homelessness and alerts the council to households that are at risk, who can then receive targeted early intervention and support. An initial assessment of the programme found that it is accurate in identifying imminent homelessness in 84% of cases.
Often, councils only become aware of an issue when people tell them they have become homeless, which is too late for any preventative intervention and increases reliance on expensive temporary accommodation. Maidstone can only prevent homelessness for a third of the people who walk through their door. However, the preventative approach facilitated by Oneview – of targeted early intervention and support – has already paid dividends. Of the first cohort flagged through the system, only 2% became homeless after early intervention action was taken. This preventive approach has resulted in huge cost and time savings for the council.
Laying the foundations for policy success: it’s about more than just data
Maidstone was able to execute its vision of preventing homelessness in the borough through two key enabling factors. Firstly, it had senior leadership with an ambitious but clear vision of what it wanted to achieve, who gave permission and encouragement to tackle this problem head on. Secondly, it had an initial investment that enabled it to establish Oneview.
Our panel members highlighted the factors they saw as critical to creating an enabling environment for local authorities to use data effectively.
- Focus on the use cases, not the data. As one expert put it, “if you want to have a conversation about data, don’t talk about the data”. Data infrastructure and capabilities might be important, but they are not the end goal. Showing people what they can do, and the outcomes they can achieve, through the use of data is far more effective for creating buy-in. This is particularly important for busy frontline staff.
- Senior leadership needs to be on board. We heard that when senior leaders ask the right questions – like in the Maidstone example – they can create a permission space that enhances and accelerates innovation.
- Starting small can pay off in the long run. Getting a small grant, kicking off a programme and working with a first cohort can enable you to test and see if a programme will work. That pilot can then be used to test, evaluate and adapt.
- It’s about more than the data itself. All experts agreed that impact doesn’t just come about with better data, or even improved data capability at the local level. They called for a continued focus on robust policy evaluation, evidence and insight, including tracking impact over time, to deeply understand what works and reallocate resources at pace to what works best.
Large structural challenges can hamper councils’ ability to use data
Panel members were conscious that local councils are currently operating in a challenging context. And while data use can drive some very visible and positive change, the barriers to reaching this for much of local government were repeatedly raised. To harness the potentials at the local level, any next government will need to grapple with several challenges.
- The lack of investment in councils. This is preventing councils’ ability to fix legacy systems – many of which make it very difficult to bring data together around a household, or a citizen.
- The variation in performance between service providers. Even allowing for differences in local costs and the characteristics of the population served, this remains a problem. Reducing this variation by raising the performance of those lagging behind could have valuable impacts on outcomes achieved. And, our experts told us, the newly established Office for Local Government could have an important role in supporting this.
- A monopoly on services. Some panel members spoke about the need for reform in the market for local authority systems and processes. Currently dominated by three of four big suppliers, it is often difficult to get data in or out of these systems, hindering the ability to effectively use the data.
- Barriers exist that prevent data sharing and enhance legal concerns. A lack of legal gateways for accessing and linking administrative data across central and local government, and even within local government itself, was repeatedly raised as a challenge. There is work underway in this space. ONS for example is developing an integrated data service, which – if it works – could overcome the need to put in place legal gateways. At the same time, legislation has often not caught up with technological advancement in this area and is often out of date.
- A lack of “patient capital”. Most interventions are not going to turn problems around quickly – we know that many interventions take time to bed in and to come up with findings, whether they are positive or negative. “Patient capital”, or long-term investment, means that public services can invest in working out what’s working and what’s not, over multiple partners and through different terms.
A way forward?
Maidstone showed us that with investment and ambition, local councils can use data to build the evidence base and draw out invaluable insight, forging a path to solve some of society’s most intractable problems.
But while effective use of data can help, it is only as good as the ability or capacity to do something useful with it out in the real world. And while many local authorities are well placed to gather and use the data they hold to solve problems, there remain significant hurdles to them doing so. This is the case whether it’s about solving homelessness in Maidstone, grappling with methodological challenges to get to grips with what works, or using data to better target services to improve the first years of a child’s life.
At Nesta, our aim is to innovate for social good. And in doing so, we want to give local decision-makers and policymakers the right tools to drive positive change. Nesta’s fairer start mission is working at the local level to explore methods to eliminate the school readiness gap.