Doing good things with data is an objective for everybody in the profession. For those working in the public sector, it is usually easier to demonstrate a social benefit than it is for those in commercial companies. Even so, most data initiatives start and stop with the goals of the specific organisation.
Not so Brent Council, where Head of IT Tony Ellis has used the experience of building a new client index data hub to develop a resource for other councils. Data Connects is a best practice group chaired by Ellis which offers invaluable tools, such as a return on investment model for master data management, to other councils. It is run by a dedicated group comprising Clare Troy (Southwark), Graeme Hutchinson (Newham), Tom Kerrigan (Lambeth), Mark Grollet (Croydon) and Ellis.
Ellis says a unified data hub is a necessary response by any council to its citizens’ demands. His own experience of managing public sector data has involved a progression from a temporary job working for a London housing department, intended to last four weeks, up to his recent position in Brent Council twenty years on.
“At one time, I had to interview Housing Benefit customers. It was, and is, a complex scheme which involved customers providing a substantial amount of information. Often some of that information was required by other council departments and there was a many time when I had to tell customers they had to take the information to another building or service,” he recalls.
Ellis adds: “Rightly, their response was that surely we were one council and they should be able to submit the information to one place. Never was a truer word said. But we were just a group of organisational silos. The learning experience was that customers wanted and indeed expected us to share information across the council.”
That was not a change that came immediately. Ellis first moved from Housing to Social Care. “Providing Social Care has to be one of the hardest jobs out there and I have nothing but praise for the people who do the job. However, I think it’s fair to say that inputting data to an IT system is not always top of a care workers’ agenda,” he recalls.
To help front line workers, a data quality initiative was undertaken that involved using good quality information held on another council system. “Incidentally, that project provided my first example of how helpful and supportive the Information Commissioner’s Office was when it came to addressing any data protection issues,” Ellis points out.
After a spell as Head of e-Government at that council, managing its compliance with central government’s programme, he joined Brent as chief information officer with the task of building the client data index out of six different back office systems. With 1.7 million records covering 270,000 residents, it has become a benchmark for how to provide consistent data.
From assigning data stewards to providing better service and enforcement, the data hub supports 3,500 staff (and indirectly every citizen in the council’s catchment area). Transforming poor data quality into a central resource has proved to be a major challenge, but with significant benefits.
“Our Client Index project was certainly a conscious data-driven customer data initiative and has dramatically raised awareness about the power of good quality customer information. Brent is also a centre of excellence for the way it manages its property information and we’ve carried out a substantial amount of work on all the unstructured information we hold in our home and shared folders,” says Ellis.
As part of the council’s IT strategy, the vision is to be a centre of excellence in the management of information and data. But much of what still needs to be tackled lies outside the control of IT in the realm of specific business teams.
Says Ellis: “The next step, tor me, is for the council to adopt and implement a cross-council data management strategy which involves all datasets. We really need to move into the Master Data Management world, but need to do it as a single cross-council effort, rather than a number of worthy individual initiatives.”
He describes himself as a “champion” for the change. That is perhaps to be expected from someone who studied the Chartist movement as part of a History and Economic History degree at York University. They collected over 5.7 million signatures in the mid-1800s calling for Parliamentary change.
But as Ellis notes, data quality was causing problems even then. “Sadly, when the actual petition was checked, it was found to contain only the names of 1,975,496 people and that included people forging the names of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington. Obviously the Chartists didn’t have data governance programme in place,” he points out.
Achieving change around data at Brent Council has been easier as the Client Data Index project was enthusiastically supported by both management and councillors. Perhaps it is this positive experience which encouraged Ellis to get involved with Data Connects as a reference point for all 437 local authorities in the UK and, in the process, demonstrate that IT projects can deliver real improvements for the business, too.