Consider this paradox: public sector leaders are recognising data as a strategic asset more than ever before, but many are becoming disillusioned with the concept of a data strategy as the way to unlock its value. Is it because data strategies are only really helpful in the private sector?
Public sector faith in data as the key to unlocking all our problems has been growing over the past decade, with increasing numbers of public sector leaders recognising the potential for better outcomes for communities, greater efficiency and lower costs. The current financial climate is putting even greater pressure on public sector organisations to squeeze every ounce of value from all their assets: people, buildings, finances, technology AND data.
Over this period many public sector organisations have developed a data strategy, which articulates how they will develop the technology, processes, people, and rules required to manage and make the most of their data. A search for the term on gov.uk reveals 381 results.
And yet, many public sector leaders we speak to feel frustrated, confused, and disillusioned when it comes to data. The grand promises have failed to materialise; it can seem that even after years of having a data strategy, not much has really changed. This is often despite the best of intentions and planning, approval (or even pressure) from the authorising environment, and investment of time and money.
So what is a leader to do? Our experience shows there is benefit in a data strategy. But strategies that assume large-scale investment or wish away legacy systems are bound to disappoint. Unfortunately, no matter how glossy your data strategy is or how many buzzwords it contains, a document alone is not enough to make real change.
Instead, public sector leaders need to develop data strategies that are fit for purpose and realistic for the circumstances. This means paying attention to context: all the things going on in an organisation that can determine whether a data strategy actually drives the intended results.
At Nous we love thinking about problems like these, and we have identified four key success factors for developing useful data strategies in the public sector:
The data strategy that emerges from this process can vary greatly – and sometimes a written document is not the end game. For some organisations, the process is enough. Indeed, Gartner describe a data strategy as a “dynamic process” and the Data Management Association (DAMA) describes it as a “set of choices and decisions”.
One department we spoke to had tried three times to write a formal strategy, but in the end found the process it went through was enough to enable it to get going. For others, a simple one-page set of principles, like one from the Office for National Statistics, is enough to start making progress with their agenda. And some need a much longer document and a much longer process, which includes public consultation – for example the Department of Health and Social Care data strategy, a key objective of which is to build public confidence.
We remain big fans of data strategy at Nous, but we know success depends on it being the right fit for the organisation at a particular time. Ultimately, organisations set themselves up for success with their data strategy by putting in place key elements beyond the written document itself: being clear on what they are trying to achieve, working to build the senior buy-in, and securing investment in data that matches their ambition.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help your public sector organisation to develop or evolve its data strategy, including through using our data strategy health check.
Connect with Katharine Purser on LinkedIn.
Prepared with input from Peter Horne, Veevek Doolabh and David Diviny.
Published on 28 November 2022.
 Gartner Glossary, Data Strategy
 DAMA International, Data Management Body of Knowledge, 2017
 Office for National Statistics, Our Data Strategy
 Department of Health and Social Care, Data saves lives: reshaping health and social care with data