As the world emerges from two years under the shadow of the COVID pandemic, there is an understandable yearning to return to a past that is now long since disappeared. It is now time to prepare plans for a year of transition, with all its complexities.
Planning is going to be more difficult, as we separate the aberrations from the changes that will endure and shape the government sector in the future. Here are five key trends in the way the use of data is changing the nature of government.
The elephant in the room: Financial accountability and transparency
Government spending programs are set to come under significant public scrutiny in 2022. Public sector executives need to be ready for some career defining questions about probity and public accountability.
Over the past two years there has been an unprecedented amount of money spent on COVID stimulus measures. Of course, Australia is not alone. Globally, an estimated $8 trillion has been spent on such measures.
In 2022, governments will need to deal with the budgetary aftermath of such high levels of spending while desperately trying to avoid either slipping into recession or raising inflation. While further stimulus measures will still be likely in the coming year, the community is becoming highly suspicious about probity and value-for-money.
In Australia, there is a significant overlay of complexity, given a string of revelations about the improper use of government grants and other financial support programs. The Australian National Audit Office, as well as the state anti-corruption bodies are already on the case.
In a federal election year, the level of scrutiny is set to increase, especially with a Federal ICAC likely to become an election issue. Against this backdrop, it would be naïve for government executives to go into 2022, without a documentation trail capable of withstanding intense scrutiny.
Of course, to only focus on not getting caught, would be a cynical approach to public administration. High-profile failures in government probity have left a lasting stain on the reputation of the public sector as a whole. The long-term challenge will not only be to deliver programs that meet the highest standard, but also be seen by the community to deliver. This will require a step up in data analysis, policy design, and outcomes record-keeping.
Evidence-based policy resonates strongly with the community
The community is ready for a more sophisticated discussion about data. Health policy leadership during the pandemic has been an outstanding success.
In the past, it would have been unimaginable that daily briefings on statistics would become compelling viewing for a large proportion of the population. These daily updates gave credibility to State/Territory leaders as they undertook the enormous challenge of leading their communities through some of the most extreme limitations to personal freedoms.
The community now has a much clearer understanding about what solid data analysis looks like, and they are more sceptical about broad unsubstantiated claims.
There is a conundrum often posed to rookie policy managers as they begin to learn their craft. “Is the job about data driven policy, or policy driven data?” Of course, there is no right answer to the question, but it does underline the minefield a government policy manager needs to step through. They need to be able to do both: advise their minister about the reality that data research exposes, and also scramble to find data that supports a government’s political position.
The underlying challenge of the policy manager hasn’t changed, but there is now much more pressure to undertake solid data analysis. The stakes are higher just to stay in the game.
Analysis is meaningless without credible communication
Of course, it is not sufficient to undertake good analysis. Data must be skilfully communicated. The past two years have seen the rise of the celebrity data analyst within media companies. These individuals are skilled in obtaining data from a variety of sources, not just government, and presenting their analysis in a compelling way. Today, celebrity data analysts are already being used to call the outcome of elections, provide strategic health advice, and explain changes in the economy.
In contrast, social media has become a widely used forum for fact-free discussions, and where conspiracy theories have flourished. Social media influencers now have a significant personal following. Their successful business model ensures a long-term position in the national discourse.
In the past, pronouncements were the province of government, and a Minister could expect to command significant gravitas when announcing a policy position. In contrast, the government position is now analysed, and alternative positions proposed in an active virtual marketplace. Going forward, the government sector must become an active participant in the data marketplace.
It is no longer sufficient for government to be a “retailer” of information. Government must also be a “wholesaler”, providing easily communicated data that others can dissect, consider, and deliver.
It is no longer sufficient to passively share data through a previous generation of open data initiatives. This is less about controlling the message today, and more about influencing the direction of discourse over time. It requires a level of analytics sophistication in the data marketplace that rivals or beats other sources of information.
Data governance needs to be more fit for purpose
Over the past two years, Australian governments have made significant progress with data governance. Whole-of-agency data strategies are now common, with capable senior executives nominated to lead and coordinate the use of data. However, these are still early days. Some agencies report a lack of clarity in the practicalities of the role, or the lack of a concerted commitment to delivering the strategy.
Governance is crucial in maintaining confidence in the definition and use of data. This work is an important foundation to future discussions about privacy, and policy proposals to link disparate datasets. Government has no shortage of available data, and this valuable resource is under-utilised for providing new policy insights. Other governments, such as New Zealand, are already using their data holdings in a more systematic way to drive policy.
However in Australia, key datasets are locked by a complex web of legislative and procedural prohibitions. Opening up these datasets will be difficult unless the government can convince a sceptical population that its governance arrangements are fit for purpose, particularly due to high profile policy and governance failures, such as Robodebt.
Some existing data tools need to be culled
Omdia research has continued to show that government agencies generally have a sufficient number of data analytics tools available to them, but not all of these tools are up to the job. The coming year would be an opportune time to cull some of the existing analytics tools, and undertake targeted procurement of more contemporary tools to fill gaps.
Most importantly, it is time to retire many spreadsheet-based systems. Spreadsheets are enticingly simple to use, but they typically lack procedural integrity and are a common source of errors. It is not surprising that spreadsheets routinely show up in adverse audit reports and in anti-corruption investigations.
Analytics tools have evolved a lot in recent years. There is also a growing number of industry-specific solutions that provide an integrated set of standard tools and processes. For example, the analytics firm SAS, provides a Financial Transparency module, specifically built for monitoring the effectiveness of government grants and other funding programs.
Built on top of their standard analytics platform, this module provides an auditable solution to manage program effectiveness, to undertake scenario testing, and to report program outcomes. By using a standard tool for evaluation across programs, it is possible to make comparisons and test the veracity of claimed success.
Rethinking the path forward
The data genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting it back. The coming out of COVID will be a complicated period, but it will also be a period with opportunities if we choose to embrace them.
Through innovative software and services, SAS empowers and inspires agencies and departments to transform data into intelligence. Download “Transformational Decision” eBook to learn how to trust your decisions will drive operational efficiency, support fairness and improve citizen outcomes by taking a different approach to decision making.