Turning information chaos into opportunity for local government

Of the many issues currently confronting the public sector, one of the biggest is information – how it is captured, managed and deployed. Both citizens and public sector employees are generating more information, content and data than ever before and government departments, whether local or central, are encouraged and expected to use this information to improve service delivery and help with the move towards open government.
     
The potential for using information in this way is vast, yet despite this opportunity it is true to say that many public sector departments are drowning in a sea of content and information. Their file servers are not only overflowing but multiplying, meaning employees cannot easily access the information they require. There are already information silos in existing solutions but there is now additional content cropping up in new silos in SaaS applications that fall beyond the reach of conventional information governance frameworks.
     
Content and information is being introduced to government departments in a growing and changing array of formats, which brings with it major complications for managing the flow of data. Mobile and cloud technologies have changed expectations of where we can work, when we can work, with whom we can work and on what devices we can work. This also increases the volume, variety, and velocity of information and therefore heightens the potential for information chaos in government.

The open data initiative
The past few years have seen an on-going trend towards more ‘open’ forms of government. This means more transparency into the mechanisations of government and in theory, more accountability for those in power. Part of this trend has involved the UK open data initiative, where government opens up the large amounts of data it has for greater public usage. This has been generally acknowledged as a positive step – transparent, innovative and with improved governance – but it also contributes to the information chaos that abounds.
    
Because the initiative has opened up such a lot of data, an astonishing 14,080 datasets have been submitted and have been viewed a total of 1.4 million times. With citizens keen to access and view this data, the pressure to store and manage the information effectively and efficiently has grown.
    
Camden Council is one organisation that has embraced the need to do this. Camden’s servers held information on such a variety of issues, including council tax payment; the number of seizures; repairs done to pavements; incidence and location of dog mess; truancy; food safety; planning consents; injunctions against tenants to name just a sample.
    
‘Geek squad’
The council formed what they referred to as a ‘geek squad’, comprising public servants, residents and elected representatives that worked together to make sense of this information, crunching the data to find new insights. The geek squad learned how information was stored, collected and analysed across departments and recommended standardised ways of doing so. The data enabled Camden Council to address a number of future challenges, most notably the creation of a new digital framework that will identify key health issues that the council’s health services will need to address in the next 10-15 years.

The information opportunity
That is just one example of what can be achieved using information in the right way, and for the public sector there is no reason why information shouldn’t be a major opportunity, not the chaos that it seems to bring currently. But what should public sector departments – both local and central – be doing to really make the most of this information opportunity? Answering the following four questions would be an excellent start.
    
Are your electronic records aligned with your policy for physical records? Electronic records are a significant area of growth in government. Practices for these must be aligned with existing policies for physical records. If there is not an up-to-date Information Governance Policy that is supported across departments, one must be created. New staff and existing staff must be fully trained on compliance with this policy, which must also address new media and social content, new forms of communication and information that have contributed significantly to the chaos of recent years.
    
Are you over-reliant on paper in your organisation? The public sector – perhaps even more so than private companies – has stuck to the belief that paper is essential in many processes. In 2014 this really isn’t the case, so highlighting the role that paper-free processes can play is important.This should include auditing where poor access to information is hurting the department - trapped on paper, spread over file shares, locked up in enterprise systems, or simply mobile-unfriendly. This can be used to energise content management, as the more content that can be converged into a single, searchable, mobile-accessible system, the better. Also, are the current ECM systems fit for purpose? If not, then consider consolidating around a new system that best suits your needs, both now and in the future.
    
Are you clear as to how you are using content? Different content can be deployed in many ways, both internally and externally as part of the open data initiative. Social is of course, a major communications channel in modern government, with almost every department and organisation maintaining an active presence on several social media platforms. So making clear exactly who within the organisation is responsible for the various types of social interaction needs to be clearly outlined and agreement must be reached with the Records Management team to categorise which social content should be stored and how.
    
What insight is it that are you expecting information to deliver? This is perhaps the key question to answer – any public sector organisation must first identify exactly what insight it is they are looking for. Having done so, they should turn to their data and ask – where is it, is it accessible, is it clean? Once that content is under management, identify the toolset required to best analyse it and audit the skillsets need to manage that process. A variety of tools are available and there may well be one already deployed elsewhere in the organisation. If it’s a best-of-breed tool for a single requirement this will not help other departments but a productised analytics toolset would be a good solution.

A genuine asset
Finding opportunity within the information chaos faced by the public sector is one of the major challenges in modern government. The open data initiative is a worthy one but has further complicated an already complex information landscape. But provided a content and information strategy is executed effectively, government can use information to better understand citizens, devise future plans and improve service delivery. Information can then become a genuine asset and opportunity.

Further information
www.aiim.org

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