Without data literacy government cannot be data-driven

Jim Stamp, head of data at Made Tech, argues that the government must improve data literacy if it’s to have any chance to meet its own data-driven aims.

Posted 28 July 2022 by Christine Horton

Data-driven is a title the UK government is more than happy to hang its hat on, with ambitions to lead the world in this space.

The National Data Strategy, and the recently published Digital Strategy, set out the government stall – to put data at the heart of our lives as citizens, and in public service delivery. It details data sharing across departments and between government organisations and other sectors, as well as upskilling its workforce to inform policy making.

Government must improve data literacy

The foundation of this will be data literacy as a requirement for all. The Open Data Institute (ODI) defines data literacy as “the ability to think critically about data in different contexts and examine the impact of different approaches when collecting, using and sharing data and information”. Importantly, it points out that it needs to go beyond “the technical skills involved in working with data”.

While there is work going on across government to upskill public servants, government-wide data literacy is still not good enough, as the National Data Strategy points out – “[there is] a lack of depth in data skills at all levels”.

The central problem here is that if you don’t understand the data you’re making decisions based upon, then the solutions or outputs will likely be flawed. In these cases, the promise of data-driven government fails at the first hurdle and the government’s biggest asset, outside of bricks and mortar, becomes worthless.

Time to insight relies on good governance and data literacy

What’s the most important thing about data? It’s the insight that you draw from the data that allows you to make decisions or inform policy. And the KPI government must measure is time to insight.

Plainly put, a lack of data literacy impacts the ability to gain insight. But it goes beyond that. It impacts the sharing of the data too. Everyone in the sector feels the fear. For many, there’s a constant worry of the impact of leaking the wrong data to the wrong audience. In the past, we’ve tried to connect data up across projects and there’s hesitance to be the first one to start sharing. This causes a change paralysis across a lot of government services and that fear of risk is difficult to get over.

But we need to be able to share data across government if we are to create open datasets that can provide the insights necessary to be data-driven. Of course, we must protect data and go through governance processes, but to make that a simpler and quicker process we need to be able to describe the data correctly and understand where it has come from so that it’s easier to deal with.

Now, one of the biggest issues in government is that data gets stuck between teams as it can take months to go through assurance groups to make sure it’s valid, can be shared, and doesn’t have any protected attributes. This prevents government from being agile.

The only way to change this is to put more emphasis on the time to insight KPI. If we can convince government organisations to use that to drive data strategies, then there will be a more apparent need to upskill teams in data literacy and thus make governance easier. Then we’ll make sure that government can make the most of its data to innovate and put data at the heart of public service delivery, and improve the lives of people everywhere.