General election 2017: Politicians have been silent on data – and unwilling to let councils take the lead

Written by David Walker on 7 June 2017 in Opinion

While some councils boast impressive advocates for data analysis, there are strict limits on what they can accomplish without the backing of Westminster – as the election campaign row over social care shows

During the election, Theresa May and the Tories have stumbled over the future shape of social care in England.  In the leaders’ debates, she sought to recover by emphasising the provisional nature of the government’s plans for how to pay for the care of older and infirm people. She talked about wide consultation with the voluntary sector.

Not a word, however, about talking to the people who are actually responsible for assessing needs, delivering care, charging care home residents and those getting help at home – local authorities. 

With that example, at the very heart of the 2017 general election campaign, you have the reason to be cool land cautious about the future of data analytics in local government. It’s not to diss enthusiasm or the evangelising of Nesta. But let’s accept there’s a gaping hole in the hopes and aspirations of those working in local government with and on data, and those supplying them with soft ware and solutions. 


We have to ask whether the powers that be (the Treasury, ministers, permanent secretaries in Whitehall) want local government to be anything more than a passive delivery agency for programmes devised by the centre. Having pushed councils out of schools (and made data analysis round pupil attainment, home background and neighbourhood much more difficult), the government seems unlikely to reinstate councils as leaders in social care.

So there are strict limits on what local data analysis can accomplish without the active approval and encouragement of the centre – particularly when it comes to data sharing by the NHS and by central government departments, headed by HM Revenue & Customs and the Department of Work and Pensions, let alone the NHS. And despite specific local examples of joining up and sharing, these frontiers remain heavily fortified and often impregnable.

Within local government in England there now exists if not an army then a battalion of datavores.  Their enthusiasm is impressive. Nesta recently collected a bunch together and they can tell some great stories – about the Essex County Council data hub, Humberside Fire & Rescue. You can add to that the London Office of Data Analytics and Bristol City Council: in both those areas, elected mayors could be shapers of the data landscape. Interesting work is being done using data on housing in multiple occupation and fire hazards and transport planning.

But for all the missionary zeal of the likes of Nesta’s Eddie Copeland two things stand out. One is how peripheral much of this activity seems both within individual councils and inside the Local Government Association. Data lacks political traction. (How invisible has the data agenda been in the election campaign?) 

Apart from Camden’s Theo Blackwell I couldn’t spot any actual councillors at the Nesta event – but buy-in by politicians is critical, not just to will the resources for data analysis but to provide cover for data sharing. The data conversation, says Andrew Collinge of the London Office, has to be political – rebuffing the data zealots who imagine the people can magically assent to taxing, spending and complex policies for public services without the intermediation of parties and elected representatives.

Back to social care. Nesta says the holy grail for data analytics is to move through prediction into prevention – first understanding the care needs of a given population then providing the domestic care and residential services. The data aren’t the problem. The data exist to build a predictive model for the likely incidence of dementia, Alzheimer’s or other disabling conditions that will require local authority care. Into such a model for a given area could be fed data for property valuations, household income and ability to pay and that is all in principle accessible from HMRC. 

Bristol council, for example, collects data on social care referrals social care referrals. Troves of health data include the incidence of degenerative disease and onset of disability and exciting moves towards sharing health data across the North of England show what’s possible at the boundary between research and public service provision.

What’s holding things up isn’t just the obvious barriers to data sharing between government silos. It’s rather the very purpose of data analysis. Before you can do anything with the data, you need a policy.

What’s the point when we don’t even know whether councils will retain a role in social care? Maybe such a policy will emerge after the election. But until it’s decided whether social care strategy will be locally led or handed over to some other body (a national social care agency, the NHS?), data analysis is virtually meaningless. 

About the author

David Walker is a former managing director of public reporting at the Audit Commission and co-author with Polly Toynbee of Dismembered: How the Attack on the State Harms Us All​

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