A Trowers levelling up publication: Is big data the key to unlocking the Government's levelling up plans?
Nobody is in doubt of the importance of data in modern society, but its quantity and quality often make any application unwieldy and ineffective. Coupling this with limits on local authority spending and the ever-changing political landscape, the approach of local government to data collection varies vastly from region to region.
The Levelling Up White Paper identifies that data can be central to decision-making to achieve the ambitious aims and objectives of the Government – and in our opinion rightly so. Recognised as a key tool to ensure appropriate accountability, using comparable data 'provides an opportunity for central and local government to work in partnership, with a shared lens on reporting to support local and national decision-making'(1). Such reporting could reveal the scale of the levelling up challenge and it is the Government's intention to use data as a benchmark to assess the success of the policy. The risk here, however, is that a conclusion could be drawn that the scale is too great; stifling innovation.
The White Paper acknowledges that the required infrastructure and experience is lacking at local authority level to make effective data modelling a reality. The Government's response is to set up an independent body to:
- empower citizens with information about their local area;
- strengthen the knowledge of local leaders about their services; and
- measure efficiency and area variation, tailoring support.
Whilst in the first instance, data appears to be earmarked for primarily monitoring purposes, ensuring funding is being correctly applied, there is an opportunity in the future, that data can be used specifically to unlock funding by accurately assessing the needs of a local community and providing resource accordingly. It does not seem the levelling up agenda goes this far just yet, but this could ultimately grant the potential for cost savings for the taxpayer and/or through the provision of better, more appropriate services.
We consider that big data on this scale is fundamental to revolutionising local and central government operations, although as always, this will come with the historic barriers to innovation, such as:
- budgetary constraints;
- poor data quality skills gaps; and
- compliance with strict Data Protection Laws.
Additionally, there are always ethical concerns which need to be considered when utilising data. Particular care will need to be given to sensitive data (e.g. health data) to assess social services, where preserving the privacy of data subjects is critical – all of which comes with a level of risk.
Any changes to the Data Protection Laws in light of Brexit will need to take into account this strategy and the Information Commissioner's Office should work together with any newly established body to ensure both are working towards the same objectives.
Effective use of data appears to underpin the whole application of the Levelling Up White Paper and a failure to do so will result in a failure of the policy. The proposed statutory duty to report against levelling up missions add a new task to local governments already-stretched workloads and so funding this new workstream at local government level – as well as funding the new independent body – will be key. The challenge of utilising big data to benefit communities in need has been highlighted in the White Paper and, as ever, local government will play a central role in rising to it.
1) Page 139, Levelling Up White Paper, 2 February 2022
2) Page 138, Levelling Up White Paper, 2 February 2022
3) Page 156, Levelling Up White Paper, 2 February 2022