The volume of data, and associated applications, used by the UK government has grown rapidly as it works to digitise and enhance its services to citizens. From health to education, infrastructure to justice, this creates great potential for data to be used to drive effective decision-making, inform policy formation, and to fuel the streamlining of operations across government. 

The UK Government has clearly recognised the need to accelerate use of data by public bodies and is actively trying to drive progress, but capturing value from data still occurs at a much slower pace than in the private sector. To drive change, government departments and agencies need to make sure they have the data that can influence decisions they need to take to deliver value for the public – and to know what they need to deliver, they need to have a clear purpose that drives organisational performance. 

This article outlines the key steps that government can take to embrace the use of data to improve delivery against its purpose – after a reflection on the learnings and impact of the Covid Pandemic on Governments using data to make decisions. 

The learnings from Covid 

The importance of purpose and data-driven decision-making in government was highlighted by how they responded to COVID-19. Faced with a rapidly evolving and unforeseen challenge, governments were required to make good decisions at pace - where the costs of decisions are measured in lives. In such a situation, obtaining reliable and high-quality data at an accelerated pace was essential to support their decision-making – and at Baringa, we witnessed this first hand working with government departments to develop insights and data products to support effective vaccine rollouts and international travel health regulations. 

Many countries successfully used health data to drive policy, effectively and quickly providing insights on areas such as: the extent to which social distancing measures were followed; the spread of infection through track and trace systems; the growth rate of the number of people infected as well as the implications for healthcare capacity; and the management of borders and travel to restrict the international flow of disease.  

However, these efforts in many countries, and here in the UK, could be quite easily undermined by a more fundamental challenge – the absence of a clearly defined and articulated purpose (for instance, whether the priority was herd immunity, prevention or waiting for vaccinations to be developed). Between departments, objectives were different and often in direct contrast to one another, which hindered effective collaboration despite the best intentions of Civil Servants and Ministers.  

The most effective examples of collaboration were underpinned by a clear set of KPIs and metrics, acknowledging the inherent competing objectives, communicated openly and regularly across government to track (and predict) the impact of decisions.  

Whilst Covid-19 presented a truly unique challenge to governments worldwide, the lessons learned - especially in the context of data-driven and purpose-led decision making - apply to a more 'governing as usual' challenge.

Below we set-out some key principles, based on our experience, that can help Government organisations to navigate how they harness data to drive a purpose-led performance culture. 

1. Work with the data you have 

Quickly seek to understand the data you have and its limitations. Data is rarely perfect, but it doesn’t need to be perfect to be valuable. Invest in developing the organisational knowledge of the data you hold, its lineage, accuracy, completeness, and timeliness – and communicate this clearly to the organisation and leadership to get them comfortable with these limitations. They need to know how and when this data can be valuable, and where using it to make decisions may carry risk. Ideally, these limitations are clearly communicated within data products as well.  

If the ‘perfect’ metric cannot be calculated, use an appropriate proxy. If data only covers some aspects of performance (i.e., only some operational areas / processes), a partial picture is better than none. There is typically value in trends, directions and partial pictures, and macro performance insights can still be extracted. Educate decision-makers and trust them to use data intelligently. 

For example, ‘homicide rates’ and ‘neighbourhood crime rates’ are commonly accepted proxies used by Home Office to monitor performance against their purpose to “Reduce crime”. These metrics can only give a view of crimes reported – meaning that there is some risk carried in using the data – however having a partial picture enables them to monitor trends in crime rates across the UK and understand the impact of interventions to improve performance over time.  

2. Move quickly, build momentum, and maintain buy-in 

Organisations that build and iterate rapidly, in an agile manner, achieve much more success. Government departments tend to be more risk-averse than private sector organisations (often for good reason!) but this can stifle progress as they search to develop the perfect product, underpinned by only datasets with which there is 100% confidence. Accepting imperfections and limitations and getting something ‘good enough’ in the hands of users as quickly as possible will not only allow you to start unlocking value but also help make the case for further investment to address those imperfections. 

There are many examples of the safe use of agile methods to drive product development in heavily regulated industries which should serve as good comparators for Government departments. In fact, Government Digital Services (GDS), part of the Cabinet Office, have long championed agile ways of working, moving projects along in small continuous steps, carrying out frequent tests to get to know their users and their needs, using the things they learn to help them develop better ways of managing information and resources to connect data around users to create a faster, more personalised experience of government for GOV.UK users.  

3. Enrich the data available to you 

None of the above means that work shouldn’t be undertaken to enrich the data available. This may mean capturing things not currently recorded, acquiring data that is recorded by a third party, improving the accuracy of data, or ensuring it is available more frequently or at a more granular level. With buy-in from leadership, and demand from the organisation, for data to aid decision making (created by unlocking value early and iterating), organisations can kick-off initiatives to enrich data – which generally mean one or more of: improving technology systems to record more data and make it harder to capture ‘bad’ data; educating those capturing the data to the value and drive a cultural change to improve accuracy; cleansing data in processing; or acquiring data from a third party. 

There is a world of opportunity when it comes to government better leveraging data across departments to drive the improvement of processes, products, and public services. This can be seen as a unique advantage over its private sector counterparts. As an example, income information held by HMRC could more readily support various DWP services such as Child Maintenance or Universal Credit.  

Knowledge asset management and exploitation is becoming an increasing priority for government, evidenced by DSIT launching the Government Office for Technology Transfer in 2022. GOTT helps the public sector unlock the potential of its knowledge assets to deliver value to the UK economy and society, offering guidance and grants up to £250k for central government departments, arm’s length bodies and public sector research establishments for use in supporting the development, repurposing, commercialisation or expanded use of public sector knowledge assets. 


At Baringa, we believe that these principles can help government organisations quickly unlock the value available in their data to drive performance around a clearly defined organisational purpose. The experience from Covid has helped shift leaders and decision-makers towards a data-driven mindset, and departments and government organisations must not let the quest for perfection be a barrier to making “good enough” progress. Working with the data you have – with clarity on its limitations; moving quickly and iterating rapidly to build and maintain senior buy-in (and deliver value early); and in parallel identifying and executing on initiatives to enrich the data available will move the needle when it comes to being truly purpose (and data) driven. 

To find out more about how we help government organisations harness data to demonstrate and increase the public value they deliver, please contact our experts Callum Sparrowhawk or Robyn Turl

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