There is great potential and enthusiasm in the public sector for data-driven innovation that improves services and reduces costs. This was the key message that the Mastodon C team took away from a round table discussion with senior figures from the public sector this week. Yes, challenges remain around data skills, data governance and shaping the right approaches for data projects, but some clear patterns are emerging that show that data makes an impact at a local level.

And it’s this impact that’s behind data’s recent makeover, from a necessary but risky commodity – the villain of news headlines about data breaches, in the words of one participant, “a dirty word” – to a major asset that makes a positive difference to people’s lives, helps leaders to make the right decisions to help their populations, and saves money in the process.

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how can data save public cash and improve our services?

Hosted by Eddie Copeland and Nevena Dragicevic at Nesta, with the input and support of Mastodon C, we convened a group of fifteen senior figures from local and central government, including city and district councils, London boroughs and professional bodies. We knew participants had done impressive work in applying data to their organisations’ challenges, so we wanted to learn what did and didn’t work for them. The core question was “How can local government use data to improve service delivery and save money?”.

There’s an urgency around this question, given the budget and service demand challenges most local authorities face. This urgency is felt across every department and at every level. Which is why participants ranged from a London councillor who sees the need for data to drive the same impact in the public sector as it is in the business world, to the Head of Strategy at a city council that’s using data to improve collaboration across a large metropolitan area.

The outputs of the roundtable will be summarised in a report co-authored by Mastodon C and Nesta. Ahead of the full report, here are five themes that caught our attention:

1: there’s growing evidence of innovative, data-driven leadership at the top level in councils

Participants have observed significant increases in both the data literacy of executive leaders and their commitment to supporting new data techniques. There’s still a broad spectrum of capability and commitment, but the need to transform services and the emergence of good examples of how data can create impact in the public sector have caught the attention of leaders at both departmental and executive levels.

2: data is already being used to save money and improve services

From improving rubbish collection to preventing fraud, data is already being put to work, and successes are being scaled. Local authorities are already engaging in a range of innovative data projects from small experimental apps, built in-house, using open source tools, to large scale projects that bring together multiple authorities.

3: executives may no longer see data as a “dirty word”, but are still cautious about data governance

Whether it’s the fear of bad news stories that follow data breaches or the spectre of strict new legislation like GDPR, data can often be seen as something to be contained and controlled rather than shared and exploited. This can make the conversation about data challenging. And means that important topics like data governance become more about risk management and less about putting data to work by getting it to the people that need it most.

An outcomes focused approach is key to getting the risk vs opportunity balance right. Leaders need to be able to better understand potential risk in data projects, find ways to mitigate it, and weigh this against the potential for service improvements and cost savings. This in turn may require a greater degree of transparency around the goals of data projects and the technology and techniques used.

4: innovative data work in the public sector needs serious support

Being data-driven will require many local authorities and city councils to adopt news ways of working, new mindsets, new tools and new techniques. That’s a lot of new stuff. Which is why, to ensure that the potential for data is properly realised, leading public sector organisations are adopting a change management approach, focused around developing and implementing new ways of working, as well as purely getting access to the technology and hard skills required. It won’t be news that good change management techniques are needed to help public organisations get the benefit from data, but the opportunities for collaboration data offers will mean that the sector needs to consider more outward looking approaches that engage local people and partners.

5: data solutions that work need to be shared more widely

There’s lots of great services that are being built using data that find ways to save money through interesting analyses or useful apps, often built using open source software tools. Not enough of this pioneering work is being exploited by the public sector – many of the round table participants on the day formed new connections to share knowledge of what worked for them. Whilst not every tool is suitable for wider use, the sector needs to find ways to share what’s working and this is likely to mean looking at creating incentives and funding models for data innovation, as well as networking among peers to share solutions.

stay connected!

The full report will be published later in 2017. In the meantime, if you’re a public sector leader working with data, keen to connect with colleagues, and stay in touch with the latest ideas, join the UK Data Connect Slack channel. Send us an email and we’ll send you the magic link!

Finally our thanks go to the participants for making such valuable contributions to our understanding of a complex area. And to Nevena, Eddie and the Nesta team for their skilful facilitation, useful insights and efficient organisation.

List of organisations represented

Aylesbury Vale District Council

BAE Systems


The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA)

Digital Greenwich

Greater Manchester Connect

Greater London Authority

London Borough of Barking and Dagenham

London Borough of Harrow

London Borough of Islington

Mastodon C


The Office of National Statistics

Policy in Practice

Sheffield City Council

Sleuth Co-operative

Social Finance


Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council

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