By Peter Walker, Country Manager, Information Builders

Sir Philip Green’s recent report into Government efficiency raised some serious questions about public sector policies on data management. To many, the issues raised were nothing new; poor quality data, duplicate contracts, procurement problems — we’ve heard them all before, so why do these problems continue to stifle service efficiency?

The answer lies not only in the current lack of technological capabilities in the public sector, but a deep-rooted shortfall in the understanding of just how vital information is to all organisations. All too often the benefits of analysing and making critical decisions on information are overlooked, which in turn triggers many of the problems listed above. This culture has to change if the Government is serious about transforming our public services to cut costs and improve efficiencies for the long-term.

Influencing every decision, everyday

Let us be under no illusion — data is the lifeblood of all organisations and it must be harnessed and utilised to ensure efficiencies are made. Instilling this culture across a business or department can take time, but it must be progressed to ensure all employees are taking decisions based on the whole picture rather than a best guess.

Green described the government’s procurement data as “shocking”, noting that it is both inconsistent and hard to get at. This example alone captures the main problems of the ‘dodgy data’ culture in a nutshell. Why are there so many inconsistencies in this area? Why are separate departments paying different prices for the same services? Why has nobody every spotted these anomalies? Even if they did, is there anything they could do about them?

It is simply not the case that Civil Servants deliberately overlook these discrepancies, instead it is because they rarely have the tools available to draw comparisons in the first place.

All seeing means all knowing

The report correctly notes that currently, departments are operating in a disjointed structure and that savings could be made much more quickly with a central mandate. What’s worse is that each department relies on a manually produced return to record transactions, in some cases even asking suppliers for information about cross-government contracts.

This kind of information should be stored centrally within the organisation to allow decision-makers to draw comparisons and collect information to drive down costs and negotiate better deals. Without a system in place to present this data, managers are unable to gain the necessary visibility into spending and are thus forced to guess the best prices without any real evidence available to consider.

Gaping holes in the public purse

The statistics in the report highlight numerous financial oversights, all of which are completely unnecessary and costly. There are a total of 71,000 central Government buyers who have an approximate monthly spending limit of up to £1,000, which is not monitored. There are no real spending reviews against Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and departments have no incentives to spend less than the cash budgeted to them.

But without proper performance management assessments, how can departments even begin to iron-out these inefficiencies? Clearly, the need for a drastic cultural change to information management needs to be implemented with immediate affect to deliver the level of public savings in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Small changes mean big savings

Even the smallest changes to data efficiency can reap savings of millions of pounds of public money. If a nurse or ward manager has identified a quicker way of working in a hospital, which reduces administration and speeds up patient care, shouldn’t all managers in the health service be able to see it, review it and, if suitable, roll it out elsewhere? If a Police force has pioneered a new patrol initiative, shouldn’t that be shared with other officers and departments? Currently, without the central data available, these savings initiatives will fall under the radar.

Undoubtedly Philip Green’s experience in the retail sector — one of the most aggressive industries where stock replenishment and effective data analysis can make or break a business — have given him an expert insight into spotting these shortfalls. But now that these problems have been highlighted, it’s time for the Government take to action to centralise data and ensure managers have a clear insight into all the facts before they make long-term decisions. Once this new culture of responsible data management is fully implemented across all departments then delivering greater savings to hard-pressed taxpayers’ will be a much easier challenge to tackle.