According to a story in Monday’s Daily Telegraph the Government is going to propose a massive extension in the amount of data that can be shared between Government departments. To quote the story:
Details of the financial history, qualifications and property wealth of millions of Britons could be shared across Whitehall for the first time without their consent, the Telegraph can disclose.
Information including voters’ driving licences, criminal records, energy use and even whether they use a bus pass could be shared under a radical blueprint to link up thousands of state databases used by schools, councils, police and civil servants.
The proposals are likely to ignite privacy concerns if officials are granted unprecedented access to citizens’ private data.
The rationale behind this type of sharing seems to be fourfold; again from the Telegraph:
- Ministers believe the ability to aggregate and “mine” citizens’ data under a new legal framework will allow them to better monitor economic growth and population movements, identify troubled families and elderly people in need of support, and cut fraud.
- They want to copy sophisticated customer analysis techniques developed by retailers such as Amazon and Tesco to develop a significantly more “intelligent”, “nimble” and cheaper State.
People tend to assume that Government can share data between departments to complete simple tasks, and are surprised to learn that it cannot.
Removing barriers to sharing or linking datasets can help Government to design and implement evidence-based policy – for example to tackle social mobility, assist economic growth and prevent crime
I like the idea of ‘Big Data’ and agree with the Government (via the Telegraph’s story) about the potential benefits but I do have this sneaking suspicion that the Government are, in their enthusiasm, trying to run before they have even learnt to walk.
Probably the biggest area where the sharing of data and information could benefit the public is in the sharing of data within health and social care. The Government have tried a couple of routes to solve this problem and both have had their problems. The first was the Caldicott 2 review which included within its diverse recommendations a ‘Duty to Share’. The recommendations were accepted by the Government and many of them then left up to local bodies to implement.
I’m not going to pretend to be a full expert on information sharing but my experience so far has been that even with the ‘Duty to Share’ the barriers to sharing are more cultural and practical. Organisations don’t have proper information sharing agreements between them, consent is not gathered from the public in a systematic manner and even if the first two are sorted out the IT makes it difficult to share appropriately.
Secondly, the Government tried care.data which would have collected a large amount of health data, packaged it up and then provided it, anonymously or pseudonymously, to researchers, private organisations and others with an interest in health and improving health outcomes. All of this would have been done without consent and once the public found out about it there was a fairly large backlash and the plan was postponed.
The two examples taken together explain why I am nervous about the Telegraph’s report. The care.data fiasco has made the public nervous about the Government’s intentions when it comes to data sharing and any plan to share ‘financial history, qualifications and property wealth of millions of Britons’ is only going to make the public even more sceptical about data sharing and the Government holding their information.
Meanwhile, the bigger issues surrounding data sharing amongst professionals where the sharing could directly improve the services received by the public are not being addressed. The Government has recognised some of this by including data sharing targets within the Better Care Fund but they could do a lot more.
Then, once the public are comfortable with providing consent for data sharing that directly benefits them it is easier to ask them for consent to share information in other ways.
The British public share their personal data all the time with all sorts of people. The difference here is that they don’t trust the Government and can’t see the direct benefits to themselves; I’d hope the Cabinet Office would focus on those two issues and keep the grand plans until they’ve proven to the British public that they’ve learnt to walk the walk.
I’ve recently been spending some time attempting to do my own bit of good for a colleague’s soul by introducing to them the beauties of one of mankind's greatest inventions; cricket. The sound of bat on ball, the hushed tones of the crowd as the ball is sent down the wicket on a bright summers day, the tension of a perfectly balanced game after five days of toil and struggle; it truly is a sporting battle fit for kings.
It turns out that most of the people I know who like cricket also happen to work in local government, and this got me thinking: where are the similarities between these two oft misunderstood giants of British society? In an effort to educate and convince my colleague, here are a few off the top of my head.
1. Despite appearances to the contrary, neither are boring
One of the most often quoted lines when anyone mentions cricket is “but it’s so boring!” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; if you take a step back and look at a match rather than every second of it. Yes, for large periods of time it looks like players are standing around doing nothing, but this hides the fact that mentally they are switched on permanently, staying ready to act as and when needed and responding instantly to demands to change gear and direction. Taken over the duration of the match titanic struggles are played out, with the balance of success teetering one way or another rbased on the decisions of those taking part combined with a slice of lady luck.
Local government is the same; it may feel at times that decision making moves glacially slow, but that belies the work going on to mve things forward and the exciting bursts that happen from time to time. Much of the most important and interesting work goes on out of the public glare so is often forgotten about; anyone who thinks all local government is about is committee meetings and form filling has clearly never spent any time working there.
2. It’s a team game for individuals
A cricket team is made up of eleven players, though a glance at any one stage rarely seems to show much in the way of teamwork. All of them have a specific role to play, even those who look superfluous standing on the boundary, and whilst every person acts individually on their own areas of expertise these all combine to create an effort greater than the combined sum of its parts. Individuals may make an impact on a game, but unless every individual is performing to at least an acceptable standard the rest of the team suffers.
The typical council is made up of huge numbers of teams and services, each of which has a greater or lesser degree of autonomy from the others and rarely works perfectly in harmony with every other team and service. However, a poor performance from any one of those teams seriously impacts upon the standing and reputation of the council, which in turn hinders the other team’s ability to perform effectively. Every service, team and officer may feel like they are working on their own at times, but they all are an integral cog in the grand machinery.
3. Captains are more important than most people realise
Alistair Cook has come under a lot of flak recently for poor captaincy (and rightly so in my opinion), but some people feel he should be given a lot less grief and pressure as he’s not the only one letting the side down. True as that may be at a certain level, the role and influence the captain has on the rest of the team cannot be underestimated. They set the field and in doing so establish the mindset of the team, they work to keep morale up, they have a quiet word to encourage new players or tell underperforming stars to buck their ideas up or else. They are respected by their peers and perform unflappably in the public domain when the cameras are rolling, explaining the team’s approach and taking responsibility for remedying any problems.
Many surveys conducted with the public result in the sound bite of “get rid of the chief exec and senior staff”. A council without these individuals runs a very, very real risk of listing aimlessly without a clear direction being set. They have no-one to step in and fix problems, to establish and drive through a vision for success and to publicly stand up for their staff and have their collective backs. Sometimes a team of managers can come together to perform this function, but invariably one of these ends up taking on the chief leadership role anyway, ergo becoming the de facto chief exec.
4. The captain and coaches need to be on the same page
The very best teams have a clear, strong bond between the front and back room staff. The captain manages the players and the tactics, while the coach manages the support staff and sets the overall long term strategy. If there is a lack of harmony between these two friction is inevitable, which undermines the efforts of both and causes confusion and dissent on both sides of the line.
This is identical to the situation between officers and Councillors. Councillors are voted in to set direction and strategy, which is then enacted by the chief exec and their officers. As has been seen before, friction between these two leads to disaster; inevitably one side has to go, and as councillors are voted in for set periods of time invariably it’s the officers who move on, no matter how good or in the right they are. However, a smoothly oiled machine, with clear communication between these two sides of the same coin can result in truly remarkable progress being made.
5. Technology is slowly but inexorably moving in
There are people (from India predominantly) who think technology has no place in cricket and refuse to accept the use of DRS or pretty much any form of technology intended to aid the umpires. Their rationale is that cricket needs to be the same at the top and the bottom of the game, and that none of the technology can be deemed 100% accurate. The rest of the world however is more enlightened than this, and accept that 99.9% accuracy (or better) is actually pretty good. They are using technology to improve the decision making process, and games are improving exponentially as a result. That’s not to mention the small improvements to bats, groundsmanship, stadiums, coverage and more which are revolutionising the game whilst keeping everything about its core effectively the same.
Local government in places has seemed resistant to change, with some councils restricting the use of online tools for little reason other than fear of the unknown. Teams still go out with paper notepads, taking notes which then need to be typed up and sent to another team to input onto a system which generates a printed letter to send on to someone. However, the times they are a’changin. Councils are understanding more than ever the million small ways in which technology can help them perform their duties more effectively and efficiently. It’s not about playing with the latest toys, it’s about using the best tools for the job; if those tools improve, then use better ones. Better tools in skilled hands result in better jobs.
I admit to being a huge fan of cricket so am able to appreciate its finer points; the beauty in a Gower cover drive, the heart-pumping-fear-inducing nature of an Ambrose fast ball, the grace of a Pieterson catch deep on the boundary and the meandering ability of the TMS team to fill five days – DAYS – of airtime with descriptions, anecdotes and random musings of the highest order. To the modern casual observer, with an attention span measured in minutes, cricket can seem slow paced and full of inaction, but that is why you need to step back and take a wider view of all it encompasses in order to truly appreciate it in all its glory.
Local government likewise appears to the casual observer as an archaic behemoth which lumbers and stumbles its way towards progress without ever really changing, which in fact couldn’t be much further from the truth. The work needed to be delivered may not be fundamentally different, but the ways in which it is delivered is; services are evolving at a rate that would make Darwin proud. Officers and Councillors are responding to pressures placed upon them by working together in new and exciting ways which mostly go unnoticed but which make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, and which if observed from a distant enough viewpoint have a beauty all of their own.
Both of these very British institutions are throwing off the shackles of generations of tradition and rebuilding themselves to respond better to the modern day. If only people took the time to look a little closer, maybe they’d be a little more interested.
Over the last few years I think I have become partially immune to stories about the cuts that local authorities are still required to make. In part this is because the cuts have been such a part of our life for over four years now and have sort of just become part of the context of local government. However, I also think part of it is that the narrative in the sector has, as so often with local government, moved away from the problem and moved firmly into the solutions.
And yet, if anything, the cuts are now biting even harder than they ever had.
This is for two reasons. Firstly, many councils have already taken the medium risk savings (the low hanging fruit was largely a myth but was gone by 2010) and are now moving onto the far more painful savings, some of which may not even be deliverable. More importantly, the Government have continued to keep the squeeze on and have factored in ever more savings over the next three to four years.
I was reminded of this over the weekend when reading this story about Coventry Council who are set to lose another 1,000 staff on top of the 1,000 who have already left. The move equates to 1 in 6 members of the current workforce being made redundant or retiring and not being replaced and will hopefully save the council another £60m by 2017/18.
The Leader of Coventry Council summed it up:
"The worst is yet to come"
The big picture is just as bad. The LGA published their 2014 Future Funding Outlook earlier this month and despite being local government finance being fearfully complex (thanks to @flipchartrick for notifying us to its existence) the document paints a very stark picture.
As Sir Merrick Cockell details in his introduction:
‘Where councils have continued to balance their budgets, the funding gap in local government is still growing by £2.1 billion each year. Closing the gap each year demonstrates councils’ resilience but each efficiency saving that is found reduces the potential for efficiencies in future years, so many councils are forced to look for savings from service reductions.’
The below chart shows the looming gap between funding and expenditure.
I recommend that readers go and check out the whole document but there is one other chart that caught my eye:
As the report states:
‘With social care and waste spending absorbing a rising proportion of the resources available to councils, funding for other council services drops by 43% or £11.6 billion in cash terms by the end of the decade, from £26.6 billion in 2010/11 to £15 billion in 2019/20. But even this significantly understates the scale of the problem as within these “other services” are many statutory services which cannot be cut significantly: concessionary fares, minimum revenue provision, waste and transport levies and other statutory services.’
Local government has achieved a lot but the challenges we are still facing are probably twice as tough as what has gone before. As the Leader of Coventry says:
"The worst is yet to come"
And that genuinely scares me.