Features: November 13th, 2009

Business intelligence is about making better use of information that is already stored away. Some 95 per cent of councils have made it a strategic priority, but few have quality data to support effective business intelligence. The author analyses why this is so and describes the barriers to developing business intelligence to give insights into how organisations are performing. He outlines a path to better business intelligence.

The Audit Commission’s report ‘Is there something I should know?’ provides access to excellent research, advice and tools designed to help Local Government bodies make the most of their information assets to transform performance.

Encouragingly the report is the latest in a wide range of strategies and guidelines issued from all parts of government, which emphasise the importance and benefits of better use of information for all levels and disciplines across the public sector – from improving policy and strategy, through to boosting the efficiency and effectiveness of front line services. This signals a significant and welcome switch in perspective from the numerous ‘closing the gate after the horse has bolted’ post mortems reports that followed high profile data losses in organisations such as DWP, HMRC, MOD and NHS. Each of these reports identified the root cause as a systemic failure in general information management and culture throughout the organisations concerned. It is heartening that this is now being addressed more holistically by the public sector.

From data silos to insights

But can better information management really help the public sector bridge the chasm between accelerating demand and reversing budgets? Does the Audit Commission report go far enough? Is the seemingly uncoordinated blizzard of government reports on the subject in danger of confusing rather than clarifying?

David Waltho, Head of Government Affairs for SAS, the leader in business analytics software and services, looks at the Audit Commission report in this wider context and suggests that not only are the operational silos ‘drowning in data but thirsting for insight’ but the equally siloed nature of the guidance from the centre may leave them also ‘drowning in reports but thirsting for insight’.

The Audit Commission research contains some excellent insight into the current, generally poor, status of the management and use of information in councils at all levels and it provides practical guidance and tools to help drive improvement. It is an in-depth sequel to the previous Audit Commission report that highlighted the direct correlation between councils that achieve 3 and 4 stars in Comprehensive Performance Assessments and those that rate highly for information management. The determination of the Audit Commission to follow through with detailed research, guidance and tools to encourage a transformation in information management within Local Government is to be applauded and reflects the growing recognition, if somewhat belated compared to other industries, that information is the lifeblood of any organisation and particularly those in the public sector.

The gap between aspiration and delivery

However, despite case studies from leading councils who already ‘do more with less by working smarter’, the research highlights significant gaps between the few that are walking the walk and the many that are talking the talk. Thus, although almost 95% of councils report that better use of information is now an increased strategic priority, the majority have yet to lay the basic foundation stone of data quality. Also most councils appear to be driven to action by external requirements for compliance and performance reporting, rather than truly seeing information as a key strategic asset in the battle to transform efficiency and effectiveness in all areas of their operations.

Moreover, over three quarters of councils point to a lack of in-house skills and resources as a key barrier to better use of information. A similar proportion identify that the few resources they do have are used to gather, cleanse and report on data, rather than analyse it to provide business insight.

These findings perhaps highlight a deliberate but significant omission from the report – ie the role and importance of technology in overcoming the key barriers to transforming information management. For understandable reasons the Audit Commission chose to focus initially on the need for improvements in culture, people, and process, because addressing these issues is essential to success. Nevertheless councils also need to understand that improvements only in these areas will not be sufficient. They will continue to struggle to control and make sense of the exponential growth in structured and unstructured data while that data resides in a multitude of unrelated databases, or they are reliant on resource-hungry and highly risky ‘spreadsheet proliferation’.

The role of business intelligence

‘Information mature’ industries and the more successful councils have already shifted their IT focus from ‘Technology’ to ‘Information’ and have adopted integrated Business Intelligence and Analytics to automate many of the data capture, cleansing, merging, analysis and dissemination tasks. Research by The Aberdeen Group demonstrates that by doing this they overcome many of the barriers experienced by Local Authorities: they reduce risk and total costs, improve timeliness and reliability of information, and focus scarce resources on turning data into the insight that adds business value. This is also reflected in Gartner’s annual survey of CIOs globally, which for the last 3 years has seen Business Intelligence come out as their top priority because it is acting as the bridge between IT and the business. However, BI is far lower down the priority list for public sector CIOs, reflecting the lower information management maturity of the sector that has also been identified by a comparison of SAS assessments globally.

More recently, Predictive Analytics has become the growth sector within the Business Intelligence market. Organisations increasingly realise the importance of moving beyond the hindsight provided by traditional BI – which can only improve the reaction time between ‘fail’ and ‘fix’ – and into proactive ‘predict and prevent’. Many public sector policies now put the emphasis on prevention, because it is both more efficient and effective to intervene before rather than after the event, but most public sector organisations have yet to acquire the tools for the job.

Another key trend in information management is for a more shared service approach to information management or even ‘Information-as-a-service’. This is partly due to the scarcity of, and competition for, skilled analyst resource, as well as the pressure on budgets that Local Authorities are experiencing. Smaller Local Authorities in particular may find that harnessing the enhanced security, flexibility and capabilities that can be offered by specialists is more fruitful than trying to go it alone.

Overall, the insights from the Audit Commission report and the tools it provides access to are to be applauded, but Local Authorities need to be aware that the report is not providing the full picture, nor does it pretend to. It adds to the guidance provided by a wide range of related publications that are either directly or indirectly related to improving information management from both themselves and also bodies as varied such as The Knowledge Council, The Cabinet Office, The Treasury and Data Connects. However, although each report has much to commend it in isolation, few cross reference with each other and it can be difficult to connect the dots. Even assuming the target audience spot each of these publications, they may find it analogous to being sent individual pieces of a jigsaw and being asked to connect them without having sight of the picture on the box. There would appear to be a need for greater coordination and ‘knowledge management’ across the public sector information management community.

Customer quote – Croydon DAAT
Before SAS, the DAAT used basic spreadsheet tools such as Microsoft Excel and Access, which were unable to manage its growing volumes of data or quickly provide the comprehensive analysis needed.

Ray Rajagopalan, Data Manager at Croydon’s Drug & Alcohol Abuse Team: “Having proper analytics from SAS provides us with a range of benefits that we never had before. It is improving the time scales required to produce comprehensive analysis.”

“By using SAS, we can analyse the success and failure of specific treatment programmes and see whether our treatment structure actually meets the needs of the local population. SAS saves us time by being able to immediately detect weaknesses in the system rather than waiting a year or more before an issue becomes apparent. Having that ability to pre-empt problems and to do things at a much quicker pace enables early indicators to be identified and corrective action to be taken far sooner in the reporting cycle. SAS software enables DAAT decision-makers to get on with sorting problems out, making changes and re-allocating resources, to improve the local treatment system and provide more effective front-line services.”