Data holds the power to improve public services for the better, but some councils are struggling to take advantage of this shift in practice. They might not have the right skills, nor enough time to exploit their data resources effectively. That’s why I’ve been working with councils across England to design a data programme that suits their needs, which can be funded by the apprenticeship levy.
Using the masses of data authorities already have to better inform commissioning and support continuous service improvement is a rising priority. Budgets are tight and getting tighter. COVID has shown us how difficult it is to bring datasets together and identify vulnerable groups that needed more support, at a time when acting quickly is paramount. In parallel, the Black Lives Matter movement has led councils to reflect on whether their services treat different groups equally. Without the right data skills, teams are just not able to properly investigate these types of concerns.
Data science is a powerful tool that can help local government operate faster and better. We’re not talking about machine learning or complex predictive analytics: good analysis can go a long way. There are some great examples of councils using data science to improve their services, such as Southend-on-Sea, but they tend to be anecdotal. It’s not easy to get started, and the impact would be much greater if councils could create a community of practice to share insights and learning together. Growing the sector’s data science capacity could also help attract into local government the tech savvy generation that want socially impactful careers.
The sector needs a push in the right direction. And that’s what we’re doing by creating a data science apprenticeship programme for children’s services analysts. I’m working with the Department for Education and the National Performance and Information Managers’ Group (a national network of local government data managers) to design an apprenticeship tailored to councils’ need. We’re starting with children’s services, but we could imagine a similar approach for adult social care, housing or other services.
We spent the summer conducting research with 40 councils across England through a mix of detailed interviews and surveys to understand the skills they wanted to learn, and the types of analysis they would find most valuable. We heard from many analysts struggling to find time, who said they were spending two thirds of their time on data crunching, whose message was ‘if only I could use this two thirds on more strategic analysis that can support commissioning decisions and improving our insights on outcomes being achieved’. Many of the data managers got really excited when considering what they could do if they could free up their time.
So what will this apprenticeship look like? It will be a mix of hard and soft skills, teaching learners how to automate data churning tasks, conduct elaborate analysis, present their insights in a compelling way and adopt an ethical approach. But what sets this course apart from other generic data science apprenticeships is that it will be adapted to children’s services context and rhythm. Learners will practice on children’s datasets and work on assignments relevant to their teams and senior managers. The course will be delivered online and on demand to allow learners to manage their time flexibly. It will be easier for analysts to make the link between these new skills and their daily activities.
This course is eligible for the apprenticeship levy, offering a cost-effective option for councils. Many do not spend their whole apprenticeship levy for lack of suitable training opportunities; this is a missed opportunity to gain skills, as levy funds expire after 24 months and are lost. Using the levy is a great way to upskill existing staff without unlocking extra budget, making the whole internal approval process much simpler.
The new apprenticeship for children’s services data analysts will be launched in 2021 with a cohort capped at 30 participants. If you’d like to register interest or want to know more please get in touch via the website www.localgovdatascience.org/.
This sector-led programme is a really exciting opportunity to leverage the power of data and provide better services for children across the country. It is also the chance to create a community of practice; collaborating, sharing reproducible analysis and supporting each other. The pandemic has highlighted the willingness of councils to build on each other’s work and make progress together: let’s make that a reality.
Celine Gross is a data scientist at Social Finance