How big data could help win the electoral battleground

The electoral battlespace is starting to take shape. Campaigners are busily debating the political landscape. They want to own the high ground that dominates areas that matter most to voters – the NHS and the economy. With an ageing population and a declining share of global GDP – cutting services to balance the budget is a harsh reality.

For the politicians that seize control of Number 10 in mid-May, crunching the numbers in a bid to look for efficiencies will be a key priority. However, after five years of unprecedented budget cuts, it will be like trying to find a very few needles in lots of haystacks, each one guarded by its own farmers!

After the battle is over, tough decisions will need to be made. As the Spending Review dawns they will be faced with public scrutiny. Of course, people arrive at decisions differently – some act on ideology, others are led by a gut feel or instinct while some rely on painstaking research. When it comes to justifying the closure of a day centre or increasing taxes, there are different levels of expectation around the decision-making process.

After all, the government has access to an unquantifiable amount of data and so decisions can be evidence-based. Civil servants can analyse multiple scenarios based on insights from a number of data sets, in order to identify probable outcomes and improvements. Ultimately, as people’s lives are affected by change, we expect our representatives to provide their rationale for those changes. With the amount of data available to them, it is realistic to expect an informed decision-making process. 

However, this may not be as simple as it seems. Eddie Copeland, Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange, said that the government needs to ‘fundamentally redesign how it works’ to make better use of technology and data.

This reality is echoed in research SAS conducted with Civil Service World. It asked civil servants if they have the evidence they need to make good decisions. Worryingly, just over four in ten said they don’t. That’s a major proportion of the public sector that is not able to make decisions based on robust evidence. Of course we recognise that the public sector isn’t small – and, there are lots of pockets of information.

Take the NHS for example. It has patient data, performance data, clinical data and textual-unstructured data. All that information can be used for decision-making, however, it is not available across the entire NHS, and to other government departments as well. 

> See also: Making the paperless NHS a practical reality

Silos are preventing decision making from being evidence-based. Seven in ten civil servants say they can get data from within their department, but state it became tricky when it comes to sharing data. Almost half say they can’t get data from other government departments and 53% can’t get data from other parts of the public sector. Information is in many sources and in many formats. The current systems aren’t necessarily capable of overcoming this diversity to create meaningful insights. 

The good news is that the public sector is eager to make evidence-based decisions. In our research, two thirds said their organisation welcomes the use of data to inform decision making, and at senior manager level this is even more evident. They do raise concerns about the talent available to assist them in developing the insights from data and indeed, if the data is readily available. 

Whatever happens in the election, any government will struggle to deliver in this tough new world if a ‘Fog of War’ prevails based on lack of data, a silo-based approach or the ability to analyse data effectively.

Sourced from Simon Dennis, central government director, SAS UK & Ireland

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...