Public sector needs laser-focus on data, says start-up Pivotl

Pivotl CEO James Herbert and Chair Julia Glidden explain the importance of data in the public sector, and why most digital transformation providers don’t deliver the depth of data specialism needed for organisations to achieve their goals.

Posted 16 May 2023 by Christine Horton

Pivotl recently launched – can you tell us about the company and the services it provides?

James Herbert (JH): We are a UK-based, data-focused services business, and that’s quite unusual. There aren’t many services businesses at the moment in the UK that actually focus relentlessly on data and what it can do for their clients. Quite a few of our near competitors might be described as generic digital transformation businesses and they’ve just tagged data on as another service line. Whereas we think the opportunity and the challenges in data – particularly for government clients – are so huge that they need a partner who’s a specialist.

Our goal is to unlock the potential of their data, and to do this we look at the topic through four key lenses.

One is data foundations – preparing an organisation to make the most of data to exploit it and overcome the challenges of data and emerging technologies that need data, like AI. Data foundations are things like data and AI strategy, governance and ethics. So, we are focused on that practical application of it. We also do data literacy training and coaching. That’s because, unlike some other aspects of digital transformation, you can only really get a return on your data investment if everyone in the organisation has some level of data literacy.

Then we have data engineering, which is the practical preparation of the data. The design, building running of data pipelines, and a technical approach to data – the various different ways that organisations can approach data from a technical perspective to get the most out of it. You can’t do anything with data at scale without really good data engineering skills.

Our third phase, we call data analytics. That’s where we try to help our clients make decisions through visualisation dashboarding. But it’s the automation of analysis too; supervised and unsupervised machine learning using algorithms and code allowing clients automate decisions and actions in the right circumstances.

The final stage is artificial intelligence. Once you’ve got your data foundation, you’ve got your pipelines running, and you’ve got some automation and some visualisation coming through, what happens at a business level, because you’ve got all of this information at your fingertips? Part of that is about provision of data to humans and interpretation of that data for humans. But part of that is where we see production scaled, AI and machine learning. It’s making decisions on things that you’ve designed and coded that help take your business forward.

Julia Glidden (JG): What I love about Pivotl is the singular focus on data, deep public sector expertise, and the broader applicability to the commercial enterprise market. This combination makes Pivotl a unique enterprise.

So data is the real point of differentiation between Pivotl and other ‘digital transformation’ experts?

JG: One of my frustrations having worked in the digital transformation, GovTech space now for over 20 years is everybody talks about data-driven and digital transformation the way they used to talked about Smart Cities ten years ago. Suddenly everything became smart. But if everything is smart, nothing is smart. The same is true today. If everything is data-driven, nothing is really data-driven. And then nothing is ever really digitally transformed. Before we know it, AI will go the same route, and be slapped onto everything. But do we really understand what the latest buzzwords mean? What’s the difference, for example, between AI and data, between AI and data and cloud? How can these concepts come together to truly transform an organisation for better business outcomes? 

Pivotl’s value proposition all comes back to data. What has been missing in the marketplace – and I have worked on some of the world’s largest digital transformation projects – is that deep foundational, granular focus on data transformation. This is the ability to have a data-based strategy to be able to access your data, to be able to understand what you want to do with that data, and then drive outcomes that are truly transformational.

You mentioned your backgrounds, what is Pivotl’s history and connection to the public sector?

JH: Our previous businesses have been bootstrapped, just bringing a talented group of people together around some core expertise and then sorting the rest out later. All the founders of Pivotl have played a heavyweight role in the public sector through the last 15 years. The leadership team and the other founders have been brought together by design.

We’ve spent a long time identifying the most talented, successful and experienced professionals that we wanted to form our core founding leadership team. We’ve looked across the world – hence Julia is US-based. We wanted people who were steeped in knowledge of government and public services, all the way from policy at a national and global level, like Julia has, through to redesign of local government services.

It was also really important to us to have a pretty much 50/50 gender balance at the top of the shop, from the start. Of course, it’s the right thing to do but also, we know that the balance will help us to make higher quality decisions and represent more of the society in which the services that build operate. Of course, there will always more to be done on this topic, but we think it’s a great foundation to start from. 

JG: The differentiator for public service clients is people don’t go into it to make money. There’s not a ruthlessness in the public sector. Instead, there is a dedication to a common cause. And what makes us a unique partner for our public service clients is that we share this ethic. Public sector transformation has been my passion for my entire career, and I’m dedicated to it. So to engage with a group of entrepreneurs that want to meet a niche at the right time and the right place was really special. With its roots in public sector, I thought Pivotl was the right culture, the right work ethic, the right focus at the right time for our public sector clients.

When we talk about the role of data in public sector, is it being used properly, at the heart of these programmes – or is there still a lot of work to be done?

JG: We are at the tip of the sphere, ethically, responsibly and practically harnessing data to deliver better and improved public services to people in the way they want the services delivered, which is personalised to their situation: understanding somebody’s preferences, socioeconomic situation, technology skill base, and then applying data to the type of service that is most likely to have positive social impact on their lives.

The potential is enormous. But governments around the world have been talking about this challenge for over 20 years. I go back to Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, the Knowledge Economy and establishment of the Office of the e-Envoy – the remit was to have data sharing across government agencies. [But] everybody had a reason not to share their data. To drive real change, you need to push a data sharing by default strategy.  Asking stakeholders to explain why data can’t be shared instead of needing to justify why it can? Driving to ‘why not share?’ attitude instead of ‘we can’t’.

The good news is the UK is far ahead of other countries around the world in getting to that focus on ‘why not?’ Unfortunately, that ability, even within the big engines of state, to talk to one another, data is still limited. But my global experience tells me that there’s a massive shift currently taking place within the UK.  That decades of investment in the right protocols – G-Cloud, Digital-by-Default, the establishment of a CDDO – makes the UK really well poised to rise to the moment, the opportunity and the challenge.

So do you have any advice for the public sector on its journey to becoming data-driven?

JG: Every agency will be starting at a different point. It’s important to understand where you’re starting, and what your ultimate goal is. What’s the next transformation? What’s the move you can do to free up resources so you can reinvest and try to get to your end goal? Rather than trying to eat the whole elephant. Be practical and targeted.

And really make sure that your partners have the expertise to best understand, access, leverage and deploy your data, and then to invest in ensuring your own workforce has the right skills. We know that the public sector simply can’t afford to compete with the private sector for the skills. We also know that there is a host of people who are interested in delivering on the public sector mission. And that the right partner, the right tools, and the right investment can really help the public sector transform. So, my advice can be summed up as: understand where your organisation is, where it wants to be, and invest in skills and the best staged path to get there.