The data decade: Why the public sector needs to embrace data literacy in the 2020s

By Jane Crofts

Friday March 20, 2020


We live in a world where everything we do — and don’t do — is captured and stored as valuable data. From the apps we download, to the way we consume news, and what we have planned for our next family holiday — data is captured anywhere and everywhere. This seemingly endless cache of data presents valuable opportunities for the public service to innovate; however, the simple fact is that many government departments and agencies simply don’t have sufficient data skills to turn this treasure-trove of data into the improved systems and services we need.

Gartner predicts that in 2020, 50% of organisations will lack sufficient data literacy and AI skills to achieve business value, and the public sector is set to experience its own shortfalls as a result of the limited pipeline of data professionals. There simply aren’t enough data scientists, engineers or analysts to go around, and the demand for these roles isn’t going to slow down either.

The solution here isn’t somehow uncovering an untapped source of ready-made data professionals; rather, it’s to increase data literacy among the current workforce. If the permeation of data into every aspect of our lives has taught us anything, it should be that data is no longer a niche field that only IT departments and app developers need to worry about.

Traditionally, government departments and agencies have been comprised of “data” and “non-data” roles, but the “data” and “non-data” groups have struggled to speak to each other — they have found it difficult to recognise and contribute their respective expertise because they lacked a common language. Data literacy can fill this gap. Data roles that can understand and incorporate the experience and knowledge of their non-data colleagues will be better for it, and non-data roles that learn to speak this language as a way to contribute their experience will thrive in the data-driven economy. Not every person within a department needs technical data science skills, but what every department urgently needs is a data literate workforce.

There is a huge cost attached when only a small number of people in a department are part of the conversation and this is what happens when select roles only, such as the data scientists, engineers and analysts, “speak” data. How can other departments and specialists provide input if they don’t speak the same language?

Government departments and agencies that are able to tap into the untold potential of data and entwine that with the knowledge and experience of their workforce will become the most innovative, efficient and effective.

Just as literacy is our ability to read, write and comprehend a language, data literacy is our ability to read, write and comprehend data. Data literacy isn’t a new concept and while many government departments and agencies have the intention to perform better in this area, on the whole Australia has been slow to act.

The United States government recently released its Federal Data Strategy 2020 Action Plan, which outlines specific steps, along with timings, roles and responsibilities, to measure data literacy across all government agencies. Likewise, the Canadian government has expressed similar goals and measures for data literacy. In Australia, however, a clear framework for action on data literacy is conspicuously lacking.

Improving data literacy isn’t just about filling roles — it has the potential to exponentially improve every aspect of the public service. Services and outputs all become richer and more relevant with contributions from everyone in a department, and not just from a single siloed team. Yes, we need data roles to do the heavy data lifting, but it’s the non-data roles that make the data matter by enhancing it with meaning, context and human experience.

Just as the 1990s saw an exponential rise in the need for professionals to develop basic computer skills, the 2020s will demand that we are all data literate. And given the scale of what’s at stake, it’s time for governments to act or risk being left behind.

Do you know how data literate you are? Test your data-literacy skills here.

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