Dynamics Matters Podcast Ep 58: The Public Sector data conundrum

With special guest Paul McPherson, Public Sector lead, Microsoft

✔ Focus on local initiatives to solve wider challenges

✔ Use low-code tools to increase the pace of change

✔ Connect your data to connect citizen experiences

Transcript

Welcome everyone to episode 58 of the HSO Dynamics matters podcast.

Your regular sonic dive into the world of Microsoft technology related matters and much more besides.

I’m your host Michael Lonnon, and for this episode I swung by Berkshire to have a chat with Microsoft’s Public Sector lead, Paul McPherson.

With data coming up as a hot topic in the recent SOCITM President’s conference I wanted to get Paul’s thoughts on why it remains so relevant, and what Public Sector organisations are doing to harness or why they’re not.

So, grab a brew, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Michael Lonnon

Let’s have a chat about data, and public sector specifically. I was at the SOCITM presidents conference recently and there were so many great sessions, and conversations, but what kept coming up time and time again, was data. And how important data – and the management of data – is, in enabling local authorities, in particular, to deliver the best services, the right services for citizens. Given your experience and background, why is data of such importance within the Public Sector?

Paul McPherson

It’s a couple of things, and it’s something that the sector has traditionally struggled a little bit with because of underinvestment a bit like the railways if you like. So, there’s still a lot of data and therefore insight that’s landlocked in legacy systems. So quite often, it’s not that the data doesn’t exist, it’s not that the Council or the local authority, or the central government organisation doesn’t have the data to make better informed, quicker, and evidence-based decisions, for instance, it’s more accessing it. There’s still lots of siloed systems. There aren’t single views of citizens of services. And I think the other thing that leads on from your tip bits that you threw me in that data is one thing, but you need to convert data into actionable information or insight, that’s actually telling you something, and then you need to operationalize it as well. So, collecting data alone is not the end of the story.

Michael Lonnon

Going back to the importance of data, do you think most Public Sector organisations understand the value of data and are they trying to do something about it do you see?

Paul McPherson

I think it’s inconsistent. When it’s good, it is great, don’t get me wrong, and it’s very, very well progressed. There are those in the middle that realise that there’s more that they could be doing and everyone is aware of the importance, but it’s whether organisations think that they can realistically do something about it. So, everybody would like to have more data, or be able to use more of their data, and some are just far more progressed than others in making that a realisation. But back to my original point of when data is traditionally landlocked, in siloed systems that don’t talk or aren’t integrated as well as they could do, there’s parts of Public Sector heavily reliant on off system working, or manual processes or incomplete and disjointed processes – then the opportunity to make available everything that even exists in an organisation can be a tough ask.

Michael Lonnon

What do you think that challenge is then, why is it such a tough ask for organisations to recognise the value of data, and in getting more value from the insight from their data?

Paul McPherson

I think some of it comes down to budgets. Some of it comes down to understanding what is possible and the steps you need to take, because this isn’t something you can just buy overnight and switch on the following week. Depending on which angle you tackle it from, data management can require a major investment. So if you want to digitally transform your organisation, or be the forward-looking digital Council, for instance, then you know that needs changes in technology, it needs changes in processes, it needs changes in ways of working, and those types of things need significant investment. They’re transformation programmes, they’re not data projects. The opportunity does exist to work at the other end of the spectrum of being able to take small incremental gains, if you like – I borrow that from British Cycling and Dave Brailsford – and technology is enabling that in organisations right now, so it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing big bang.

Michael Lonnon

When I was at SOCITM, there was one council talking about how they embedded sensors, AI connected sensors to the lamppost. It was sending data into a central system that was dictating when the light came on or off. It saved them, I think it was a million pounds a year or 2 million pounds a year from their utility costs, just by having data fed backwards and forwards. It’s not just about improving data just because it’s a nice thing to do, actually, there’s some real practical benefits of doing so. How would you advise public sector organisation on how they could go about improving data?

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Paul McPherson

There’s thinking about new use cases, new technology, and things that are effectively greenfield like, such as the example that you gave, and smart buildings, very similar type of paradigm to what you described. So, they’re kind of net new, forward-looking things that have not done before. I think, especially when we think about councils as well that have lots of Directorates, departments, etc, delivering a diverse range of services, it’s probably not to forget that you can take small incremental steps. The advent of low code, and the cloud as an enabling technology means you can take more local steps or remove manual processes, automating or removing spreadsheets, and shared file systems. So data is collected in a far more uniform, clean manner, which enables it to be more usable, and that grassroots or organic transformation, as I like to call it, can be in a team and departmental level and grow up through the organisation. So, it doesn’t always have to be big change in technology programmes that lead from the top down. Technology is enabling grassroots to improve services they provide, increase productivity, efficiency, and user experience within councils, for instance, by making data more accessible, easier to collect, use, utilise, and as I say, turn into actionable information you then have to operationalize and make available. Whether it’s to frontline workers, drop-in centres, or whether they sit on the end of a contact centre.

Michael Lonnon

Getting value from your data and changing the culture within an organisation about its use of data as you highlighted, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. You can still get value from data by doing smaller initiatives using tools like Microsoft’s power apps to enable that. For example, HSO has developed an application based on power apps for helping councils manage Ukrainian refugees’ placement in one environment. It’s taking data from Foundry, and then moving it through. If you want to get value from data, don’t think of it as this ginormous project, you can add small amounts of value as well.

Paul McPherson

Absolutely. As we’ve seen from recent changes in global events, such as Ukraine, and the knock on from COVID, and where we find ourselves for a number of reasons with cost-of-living crisis, staring down the barrels of stagflation and a recession, etc, then the huge challenge for Public Sector is that they’re solving problems for today and they’re going to have to solve problems for tomorrow and the time after that, and the time after that. We never know, and they never know, what those things are going to be. Going back two and a half years ago, if you were to say to people there’s going to be a global pandemic, and it’s going to lock the world down, and you won’t be leaving your house etc. People would think you were mad. So whether it be from the banking crisis, through to COVID, through to a dreadful war on our doorstep in Ukraine, there’s always something new to react to and then there’s always the ripple effects. Put some of those things together and the fact that economies are cyclical anyway, that now we have the cost-of-living crisis, the oil price rises, and we’re looking at a recession. So, there’s always new problems and new ways of applying data and of course, we’re in a world where so much more data has been generated day on day, month, by month, year on year than it ever has been before that we can generate insights and intelligence that we wouldn’t have known about even going back a small number of years.

Michael Lonnon

So, we use data as a basis for learning, and we’ll be able to react better to the things that we don’t yet know about that come up in the future?

Paul McPherson

Absolutely, but also, I think the opportunity for local government and broader public sector is to combine data from those landlocked systems. To be able to take in open source and public data as well to combine that especially with the advent of AI and machine learning, is that we have greater opportunity than ever to intervene earlier, or to nudge behaviour, or to educate demographics and society around certain scenarios. So if we can use data in that forward looking – proactive – way to campaign around better diet, more exercise, helping prevent people getting heart disease, or diabetes, the more that we can do around that nudge, that prevention. This proactiveness, that’s where we’re going to make savings right across the sector, because it’s far cheaper to try and influence in those early stages or prevent than it is to deal and treat. Again, that all begins with data, with insight, and being able to reach out to people with the right message.

Summary

I liked the phrase Paul used when it comes to adopting the technology that underpins your data initiative: take local steps. In other words, adopt what is right to solve challenges and deliver the services that are locally relevant to you and the people you are supporting and enabling.

And with cloud computing and low code tools such as Power Apps advanced technology is more accessible, and this is making it easier to build out a foundation where data flows and connects between the different systems which makes gaining valuable insight far easier.

I hope you enjoyed this episode, until next time, take care of yourselves.

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