The National Audit Office published two reports yesterday, one looking at NHS efficiency and the other at government oversight of the UK’s farming industry.
In both cases, the inconsistency of data definitions was identified as a limiting factor on the government’s ability to monitor and manage performance.
The NHS report found that the health service obstensibly achieved almost all of tis £5.9 billion cost savings target in the last tax year.
However, it added, "there is limited assurance that all the reported savings were achieved". One reason for this is that "primary care trusts do not measure or report NHS efficiency savings in a consistent way, undermining the quality of the data.
"The Department [of Health] has provided limited guidance, and as a result primary care trusts measure and report savings differently," the report explained. "[This] means that savings may not have been measured or reported consistently."
"Our discussions with staff at primary care trusts and our review of a small sample of savings confirmed that trusts were using different approaches," it added. "Staff also commented that they found the form for reporting savings onerous to complete, and the data breakdown they had to provide to the Department was not useful to them."
The NAO recommends that when the Department of Health reports NHS efficiency savings to paraliament, it "should improve transparency by making clear any caveats to data quality".
The second NAO report looked at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s (DEFRA) ability to oversee and regulate the farming sector.
"Farms are complex working environments, balancing food production with protecting the environment and the health and welfare of animals and wildlife," it said, "Regulation is crucial to help prevent outbreaks of animal disease or incidents of pollution."
DEFRA monitors the sector through a systems of ‘farm inspections’. These provide "assurance that farmers comply with regulations and prevent animal disease and environmental pollution [and] with common agricultural policy requirements".
The NAO’s investigation found that DEFRA does not collect sufficient data on the efficacy of its farm inspections. "The Department has not collected the data it needs to understand the scale, nature and effectiveness of farm oversight activity," it found.
Nor does it effectively analyse that data, it said. "The Department does not routinely view all its data from across the 35,120 compliance inspections to evaluate rates of non-compliance, identify common problems or risks in farming practice, identify trends, or prioritise mitigation such as improved guidance."
One problem is the lack of information sharing between relevant bodies, the NAO said. "Bodies do not hold or share consistent information that could reduce duplication of effort and inform risk assessment. This could include dates of past and programmed inspections and their outcomes, and up-to-date certified assurance scheme membership."
"We identified 30 different databases within the Department and its oversight bodies. Within them, data is duplicated and there is no one place in which farm details are combined and stored," it said.
Again, inconsistent definitions were identifited as a barrier to the effective use of data. "A barrier to improved data sharing is the lack of consistency in the way bodies categorise their information, which may mean that data would need to be cleansed or ‘matched’ before it can be meaningfully used across bodies.
"For instance, the way names and addresses are collected can be different for the various bodies given each uses it to support their own activities. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency holds the details of the keeper of the animals, whereas other bodies may hold the name of the land owner or the corporate address."
The issue of inconsistent data has been identified by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude as a barrier to government oversight. Speaking at a ‘big data’ event earlier this year, Maude said that some corners of the public sector resist efforts to standardise data definitions in order to shirk accountability.
"Comparability is the handmaiden of accountability, which is one of the reasons why it’s resisted," Maude said. "Some parts of government are unwilling or unable to provide data in common definitions."