Public Services > Central Government

Why government should ring-fence £4 million for local data scientists

Published 13 December 2016

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, says a data revolution is coming to local government, but it needs a helping hand from Whitehall


In recent years councils have started exploring sophisticated data analytics to help them manage rising demand and shrinking budgets. In Nesta and the Local Government Association’s case study report, Wise Council , we explore the myriad ways this is being done: from data-driven social workers in Newcastle to gritting vans directed by roadside temperature sensors in Birmingham.

But the benefits of this data capture and analysis is just the tip of the iceberg. Councils sit on a goldmine of potential insights, but they need more specialists to find them. In Wise Council, Nesta argues that the Government Digital Service (GDS), the arm of government tasked with supporting digital services, should kickstart this process by making £4m available to local government for a new data innovation scheme.

The scheme would co-locate data specialists with frontline teams in councils, working with staff such as social workers, housing and planning officers, directors and chief executives, to identify where data could be used to make services more efficient, effective and responsive. After all, data analytics are most impactful when driven by a particular problem that needs to be solved or a decision that needs to be made. Making the tools and techniques subsequently developed available for rapid scaling across the sector and ensuring a rigorous evaluation process would help establish the return on investment potential of data specialists. 

The three main reasons central government should fund localised data schemes are:

  1. The cuts made to local government funding since 2010 are unprecedented. Some council services, such as adult social care, are close to collapse. In this context, central government has an obligation to support the local government sector in any way it can, and especially through innovation programmes which have the potential to generate benefits which outweigh the initial costs.
  2. Centrally funded innovation programmes have provided councils the resources, space and permission to try new ideas and ways of working. Some of the case studies featured in Wise Council were made possible by central government programmes, such as Newcastle’s Department for Education ‘Innovation Programme’ funded work, Leeds’ centrally supported open data portal, or Manchester’s data warehouse which was built for participation in the national Troubled Families Programme. This scheme would create a space in which data-driven innovation can be tested.
  3. The GDS has a commitment to supporting digital services in local government, made in the 2015 Budget, but it has struggled to identify how it can sensibly support a diverse local government community. This scheme would represent a concrete action for the GDS, with the opportunity to rapidly scale impactful new tools and analytics across the sector.  

The data revolution is coming to local government, but it needs a helping hand from government. Embedding specialists in council offices across the country is something the GDS should consider with urgency.

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation


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