Death is easy. Local Government is hard


This morning Brian Jarman told BBC’s Today programme that the data indicates 20,000 hospital deaths could have been avoided over the past ten years if we’d acted on what the data is telling us.  Death is easy to measure because even the bad hospitals have to record it and you don’t go into hospital with it, but you might go out with it. So we can identify where mortality rates are higher than expected and investigate why.  That is what he and Tim Kelsey have done in the Dr Foster organisation.

Outcomes over which Local Government has more direct influence do exist.  We have measures of air quality, exam passes, road accidents, etc which can indicate the success of environment, education, highways services, etc.  Indeed esd-toolkit and LG Inform bring such measure together in an attempt to allow outcomes to be quantified and adjusted according to local circumstances.

But the emphasis on localism makes it hard to do that consistently and share findings, especially when there is a backlash against measurement from an alleged “target lead culture”.

Redefining Comms

One observation at esd-toolkit’s inspiringly titled (!) Information Management Working Group meeting this week was that “when our council’s website moved from IT to Communications it lost structure” and so lost some of its capabilities to use and find related content.

In practice the discipline of ‘Communications’ is often interpreted as the art of passing a message out rather than hearing what customers and customer data are saying and attaching meaning with appropriate statistical rigour.

Publicly funded, so called “pilot”, projects litter local government with beautifully presented stories local of success without reference to underlying data models or how they can be replicated long term and in other locations.

There are small gems of local work that are underpinned by a structured data model and so can be applied anywhere.  When Comms people understand that, we need their help (not only to re-title meetings :-)) in spreading the message that the kind of revelations Dr Foster has made with deaths in the NHS can be repeated in local government to help avoiding illness in the first place and make lives more fulfilled.

Accelerating discovery

The evangelists of open data, Nigel Shadbolt, often describes how the father of epidemiology John Snow discovered with simple data on the location of water pumps and incidence of cholera that the disease was water born.  That was 160 years ago.  This year we have strong evidence of the link between violent crime and lead in air and water.  The rate of discovery of such world changing insights will accelerate as data is shared.

A new lease of life – a personal note

On Tuesday with a cold in the cold I trudged through the snow swept streets of Bristol to hear open data enthusiasts speak to local government people. Some councils and community groups are doing some great things locally but they is a lot of caution over spending effort that might detract from immediate hard-pressed services like social care provision.  The prospect of continuing in this game for almost 20 years as the retirement age edges towards 70 was daunting.

On Thursday at the LGA I heard a council officer express her anger at the waste of money by councils doing things locally that are already available as standards.  It’s so nice when someone else says it! I saw enthusiasm for gathering a collective intelligence; for expressing council legal duties, legal gateways to sharing, service demand and outcomes as data.  The prospect of being able to go on working in this field and what we might discover was invigorating.

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