Publication: Radical action needed on data

by Audit Scotland

Radical action needed on data

Blog: By Gemma Diamond, Audit Director Performance Audit and Best Value

Scotland is facing enormous challenges. Inequality is on the rise, an ageing population is increasing the pressure on health and care services, the cost-of-living crisis is putting a strain on household budgets, while the climate emergency is demanding unprecedented change. There is also much still to do to meet the ambitions of Christie and focus on prevention and longer-term outcomes.

Data is a vital tool that can help leaders tackle these complex and longstanding issues. It can help us know who to assist, where resources will have most impact, and how to plan better. But right now, data is often seen as a burden for public bodies, rather than the key to better policy decisions.

People producing data are often stuck in a cycle of reporting for reporting’s sake. Often those people capturing data are on the frontline, already hard-pressed, and don’t see its wider benefits, leading to missing or poor-quality data. There are also concerns that data will be misused if shared.

Public sector leaders, too, are not clear on what data they have and how to use it. Or they find that the data they want is simply missing or doesn’t exist.

This all uses precious staff resources but without delivering the value and insights we need.

What we do know is that when public bodies get data right it can make difficult things easier.

For example, during the pandemic, new digital tools were developed to allocate and schedule vaccine appointments. That shift was enabled by using and accessing data in new and different ways. Internationally, the Scandinavians have shown us how national data registries allow researchers to link up health with other social and economic indicators to inform policy.

However, back in Scotland, reports for the Accounts Commission and Auditor General have repeatedly called out the existence of data gaps across a wide variety of policy areas.

Often, we, and other public sector bodies, simply cannot get the specific evidence we need to decide whether money has been well spent.

So how can we change things?

Bold decisions are needed if Scotland is to build data as a national asset.

First, there is a need to weed out duplication. And then to quickly focus limited resources on the preventative measures (and data) needed to tackle Scotland’s biggest problems, like the health of the nation. It’s inevitable that some things will have to stop to allow that prioritisation to happen. Let’s be clear, capturing robust reusable data will need investment and resources.

Building data skills and a data culture across public bodies is also essential, and we know there is a will to change.

Audit Scotland recently hosted a roundtable from across different parts of the public sector and from academia. For some, the exponential growth in data and attempts to manage it have created ‘a bit of a mess’ and we are not where we want to be.

But there was also recognition that there are strengths in Scotland. As a small country, we can build on the collaborative efforts and rich learning we saw during the pandemic, by sharing best practice across sectors. Harnessing the strengths of our universities and private sector is important, as well as the talent of those working in data across public services.

Things are happening:

  • A new data strategy for health and social care is due to be published in early 2023
  • Public bodies are participating in a data maturity pathway to understand where they are and what they need to do
  • There is emerging work on data standards and developing data catalogues in local government.
  • Innovative programmes such as the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF, is also mapping data based on ‘what matters’ for children and families.

This all helps achieve a more co-ordinated approach. But it is decisive action that makes the difference.

Public sector leaders have a vital role in all of this, strategy and action on data must have buy-in from the top. We have set out some specific things for leaders to consider now.

It’s also crucial that the public and users of data and statistics are involved, and that there is transparency in how data is being used. People need to trust and understand what is happening with data and how decisions are being made.

In the meantime, how the public sector is addressing data gaps and building data as a national asset will be a continued focus for Audit Scotland.

Data gaps - background

Why is data important?

Data helps organisations make informed decisions about how they can best use their resources and deliver better outcomes and value for money for the public. It can help identify users’ needs and other issues that need to be addressed. It is important that data is captured and used in a secure, transparent and ethical way.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the value of data in helping public sector bodies respond to the crisis. Data was shared and analysed quickly to help organisations direct resources to where they were needed most.

But the pandemic also highlighted gaps in data and the impact they can have.

What do we mean by data gaps?

Data gaps can exist because the right information is not collected, is only partially collected or is not timely.

Sometimes data is collected in an inconsistent format making further analysis difficult or not possible.

What are some of the causes of data gaps?

  • Data only exists in localised systems and people don’t know it exists.
  • Data is not accessible and can’t be shared effectively because the IT systems are not interoperable.
  • Data can be, or can be perceived to be, difficult or expensive to collect.
  • People do not have the right skills and knowledge to collect, manage and share data effectively and securely.
  • People don’t know what questions they are trying to answer to know what data they need to collect.
  • Lack of engagement with data users and the public.

What impact can data gaps have?

We’ve previously highlighted the impact that data gaps can cause. For example, they can make it difficult:

  • to assess whether an organisation’s or service’s priorities, policy objectives and outcomes are being delivered
  • to assess whether public money is being spent effectively and is achieving value for money
  • to make informed and transparent decisions
  • to know or assess whether an individual’s needs are being met
  • for organisations to know whether they have the right skills and staff
  • to take a whole system approach and join services up effectively through data sharing.

Data gaps can also:

  • exacerbate inequalities
  • present barriers to developing automated services and exploiting the benefits of artificial intelligence
  • prevent economic value being derived from data.

What can be done to minimise data gaps?

  • Collect the right data, ensuring every important service has the data needed to judge its effectiveness.
  • Adopt common data standards.
  • Create the right systems and environment to collect and share data safely, securely and responsibly.
  • Make data discoverable so it’s easy to find and people know where to find it.
  • Engage with data users and the public.
  • Create a collaborative culture where policy makers, operational staff, and analysts work together to understand what data will help them answer the questions they need answered.
  • Automate data collection and data linkage processes.

Actions for leaders

Thoughts from our round table on data gaps

Public sector leaders have a role to play in driving developments and building a data culture within their organisation and across the wider public sector. Data and service transformation needs sustained effort and investment. People need to understand the importance of and value of good data, and not be scared of it.


Data gaps: Actions for leaders - PDF 173Kb 

What will help at a national level?

  • A national data commitment - to create a strong data culture where data is seen as a national asset that people are empowered to use.
  • Data catalogues and registries to aid discoverability, reduce duplication and link data across the public sector.
  • Common data standards and clarity on licensing across the public sector.
  • Prioritising investment in data skills and infrastructure on the most important issues.
  • Collaboration and engagement across all sectors, including academia, the private sector and with the public to understand and harness the value from data.
  • Incentivise data processors and holders to work with others to safely, securely and responsibly share data for wider benefit.

What will help at a local level?

  • Developing a data culture where everyone understands the value of data and is not scared of it. Data is for everyone, not just the experts!
  • Data is shared across the organisation and with others, appropriately, safely, securely and responsibly, and in a way that adds value.
  • Investment in data skills so that everyone knows how to manage and interpret data.
  • Understanding what data is currently collected, whether it is fit for purpose, how it is managed, and who owns it.
  • Resources are prioritised to focus on the data that will help address the most important issues.
  • Data catalogues and standards are adopted so that data is of high quality and can be accessed.
  • Organisations understanding how data mature they are and how they can develop further.
  • Investment in infrastructure and tools to make data collection, processing, analysis and sharing easier. This includes more automated data collection processes that will make providing data easier and reduce errors.
  • Ensuring there is transparency so that the public and communities know how data is used and managed, and how decisions have been made.

What questions should public sector leaders be asking?

  • Do you understand what data is collected across your organisation and why?
  • Are you using all this data effectively? Is it adding value and telling you what you really need to know?
    • If not, what data can you stop collecting/processing?
    • What data do you need to start collecting and processing to help you answer your questions and address the challenges your organisation faces?
  • How is your organisation building a data culture that values the data it uses and empowers people to use it?
  • Who is responsible for data in your organisation?
  • Has your organisation adopted, or are you using common data standards?
  • Does your organisation have the right infrastructure and data tools for using, analysing and sharing data safely and securely?
  • Do you have a budget for data and know where investment is needed?
  • Do you know what data skills your organisation has and needs, now and in the future?
  • How are you working with other organisations and sectors to share and build data as a national asset?

For more information on our work looking at digital transformation across the public sector please visit our digital e-hub.

Data gaps: Actions for leaders
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Gemma Diamond, Audit Director Performance Audit and Best Value