Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

The public sector should use data to drive better decisions


By David Caplan, CIPFA Head of Analytics and Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of UK public services. The health, social and economic impacts of the crisis have led to an increase in demand for services at a time when resource is tight. Increasingly, public sector organisations will have to take tough decisions on allocating resources, often with little visibility of what the future will bring for their communities.

At CIPFA we see data as key to helping decision makers make sense of their current environment and make the best assessment of future scenarios. Data and analytical resources provide public finance professionals with the evidence they need to make informed financial decisions, for the benefit of both public services and balance sheets.

Enabling public sector organisations to explore, manipulate and interrogate figures from their local area is integral to making the best use of stretched financial resources. Data helps councils identify the costs and benefits of policies and interventions and to know where to target their actions. Decisions based on evidence will ultimately lead to better use of the resources available.

Although it can be useful to look at data from a single organisation, the benefits are magnified when costs and performance are compared with other similar places. An authority can view how a whole group of its peers are performing across a range of measures, identifying trends and standards to help improve their own decision making.

CIPFA has long recognised the need for comparative data and has been providing it for over a century. However, professionals are now looking beyond data that simply shows what has happened and looking for 'actionable insight' – information that explains more about the data and helps them take decisions. Data users also often want to have some understanding of the likely future and want tools that use statistical and analytic methods to predict what is could look like.

At CIPFA, we have already taken considerable steps to meet councils' more complex data needs. In housing for example, predictive analytics and performance measurement will play an increasingly vital role in the way councils manage their properties. CIPFA's new Housing 360 tools aggregates public data available within established statutory government returns. However, this tool isn't solely focused on the past and includes a module providing forecasts for the future. Data that provides forward-looking insight can be incredibly valuable for decision makers that have previously only had access to historical performance data.

For instance, looking at the number of households on council housing waiting lists in England from 2013/14 to 2018/19, Housing 360 predicts it could take up to 17 years for councils to house every household on waiting lists across the country.

Findings like these could reasonably lead to councils reevaluating how they reduce future waiting times for households. The removal of the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) debt cap is one such solution that could allow councils to increase their housing stock in the future. When applied across subsectors and public service areas, predictive data tools can help improve outcomes for public organisations, and by extension, our communities.

Another example of the analysis that can be produced with Housing 360 involves assessing balances on the HRA. Establishing an appropriate level of balance on the HRA can be difficult in local government, beyond the fact that an authority's HRA should not be in deficit. For many local decision makers, comparisons between authorities who share similar socioeconomic characteristics can be incredibly useful.

Housing 360 shows the power of data and how intelligent applications allow a multitude of statistics to be drawn together to create key performance measures. These techniques are crucial to support public finance and service delivery professionals to make prudent decisions. Practically speaking, this means that data must be able to be manipulated and interrogated: analysed over various time horizons, at both national and regional levels, and across services.

While data at aggregate level is extremely useful, there is also potential to use data at the individual level to improve targeting of services and improve outcomes. Use of personal data needs to be done with caution and ethically but can be powerful.

COVID-19 has brought the power of this kind of data into sharp relief. While the government's Operation Shield programme identified over 2.5 million people in the UK at risk from the pandemic, this only considered one risk factor – clinical or medical risk. But what of the pandemic's wider risk factors, such as the risk faced by those in lockdown who experience domestic abuse, or those at risk of slipping into debt having lost their jobs? COVID-19 is not simply a hazard to health.

These examples highlight only a few of the diverse uses of data in planning and delivering public services. Analytics will increasingly be part of the public sector managers' toolkit. Developing the use of analytical tools, underpinned by robust data, can only enhance decision making, improve outcomes for communities and secure value for money for taxpayers.

This article first appeared in Public Sector.

Explore more

  • As well as our Housing 360 tools, CIPFA offers a wealth of insight, resources and solutions in the area of housing. For a first step, why not visit our new central housing page, centred on Tackling the Housing Crisis. Included is ongoing help and support around the latest housing developments – and the latest responses and case studies from local authority housing professionals – visit our Housing Advisory Network