United Kingdom electoral battlespace: facts or fiction?

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BigBenThe electoral battlespace for the upcoming general election in the United Kingdom is starting to take shape. Campaigners are busily debating the political landscape. They want to own the high ground that dominates areas that matter most to voters – the NHS and the economy.  With an ageing population and a declining share of global GDP – cutting services to balance the budget is a harsh reality.

For the politicians that seize control of Number 10 in mid-May, crunching the numbers in a bid to look for efficiencies will be a key priority. However, after five years of unprecedented budget cuts, it will be like trying to find a very few needles in lots of haystacks, each one guarded by its own farmers!

After the battle is over, tough decisions will need to be made. As the Spending Review dawns they will be faced with public scrutiny. Of course, people arrive at decisions differently – some act on ideology, others are led by a gut feel or instinct, while some rely on painstaking research.

When it comes to justifying the closure of a day centre or increasing taxes, there are different levels of expectation around the decision-making process. After all, the government has access to an unquantifiable amount of data and so decisions can be evidence-based. Civil servants can analyse multiple scenarios based on insights from a number of data sets, in order to identify probable outcomes and improvements.  Ultimately, as people’s lives are affected by change, we expect our representatives to provide their rationale for those changes. With the amount of data available to them, it is realistic to expect an informed decision-making process.

However, this may not be as simple as it seems. Eddie Copeland, Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange, said that the government needs to "fundamentally redesign how it works" to make better use of technology and data.  This reality is echoed in research we conducted with Civil Service World.  It asked civil servants if they have the evidence they need to make good decisions. Worryingly, just over four in ten said they don’t. That’s a major proportion of the public sector that is not able to make decisions based on robust evidence.

Of course we recognise that the public sector isn’t small – and, there are lots of pockets of information. Take the NHS (National Health Service) for example. It has patient data, performance data, clinical data and textual unstructured data. All that information can be used for decision-making, however, it is not available across the entire NHS, and to other government departments as well.

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Silos are preventing decision making from being evidence-based. Seven in ten civil servants say they can get data from within their department, but state it became tricky when it comes to sharing data. Almost half say they can’t get data from other government departments and 53 per cent can’t get data from other parts of the public sector. Information is in many sources and in many formats. The current systems aren’t necessarily capable of overcoming this diversity to create meaningful insights.

The good news is that the public sector is eager to make evidence-based decisions. In our research, two thirds said their organisation welcomes the use of data to inform decision making, and at senior manager level this is even more evident. They do raise concerns about the talent available to assist them in developing the insights from data and indeed, if the data is readily available.

Whatever happens in the election, any government will struggle to deliver in this tough new world if a “Fog of War” prevails based on lack of data, a silo-based approach or the ability to analyse data effectively.

We believe sharing is caring and critical to economic growth. Find out more in our report Using Big Data to Support a New Government, where more effective ways to drive insights are discussed, alongside the crucial next steps for Government.

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Simon Dennis

Director, Analytic Innovation and Artificial Intelligence at SAS UK Government Operations

Simon is responsible for managing the key relationships between UK Central Government and SAS. In this role he enables and accelerates the delivery of SAS powered transformation programmes that support the UK and its public sector to become ever more efficient and effective through the use of analytics. Joining SAS in early 2000, he was initially responsible for a broad portfolio of public sector organisations in defence, central government and homeland security. Since 2003 he has directed the migration and implementation of SAS techniques and solutions developed for the private sector to tackle public sector counter-fraud and security programmes.

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