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Scaling data innovation: the project

At the close of our scaling data innovation project, we wanted to talk about some of the things we found.

Briefly, what did we do? We defined what we meant by scaling and identified some potential barriers. We then tested those assumptions by meeting people across the UK who are working on data innovation projects. We've written up case studies about those projects and created a checklist to help other projects to scale.

What did we learn?

From researching and speaking to people building useful and impactful things, we can make a number of observations.

Limited funding and innovation

We have seen the impact of cuts in public-sector funding on UK innovation. Since 2000, local authorities have seen an average real-term cut of almost 26% to their funding. Many councils have turned to innovation and entrepreneurialism to continue to deliver the same public services on a reduced budget. Data can help if it is used to make better decisions and to make services more efficient.

The pressure from limited budgets may encourage innovative thinking and emphasise the importance of greater efficiency. A senior member from Glasgow City Councils said that limited funding helped to “stoke the fire for innovation”. Denmark’s National Centre for Public Sector Innovation have found that financial pressure is a driver for 23% of public sector innovations.

However, innovation intrinsically involves taking risks and tackling challenges, which aren’t actions that are typically compatible with the pressures of efficiency savings and the mantra of accounting for every penny. The same Danish study found that in 36% of innovations, budget limitations hamper the innovation process.

During this project we have spoken to teams who have managed to innovate whilst delivering savings; to teams who have received substantial funding from elsewhere (such as EU bodies); but also to some whose potential to benefit local people has been stifled by a lack of funding.

Focus needs to be on digital skills

In January 2019, Kit Collingwood, departing Deputy Director at DWP Digital, called for the UK Civil Service to “train our leaders in open-mindedness and data literacy in the technology age.”

Digital skills are now essential for all who are looking to deliver effective public services. It is vital that all team members can both promote and challenge the use of data and technology in the delivery of public services.

The ODI's Open Data Skills Framework describes the knowledge and skills needed for anyone interacting with open data, from beginner to expert level. No matter what role a person has within a local authority, there are skills they can and should improve in order to bring greater value to their role.

Work in the open: share, share, share

A key barrier we came across was the lack of teams sharing their stories. Details of projects are scarce and difficult to find – and it is often unclear whether they are still running.

Working openly, as much as possible, can help to limit many of the barriers we identified.

When project teams shares their stories – their lessons learned, the challenges they faced, and ideas they came up with – they equip others with information that can bring benefit to their own projects.

When teams share the technical aspects of their projects – the data used, their source code and software developed – they can save other projects from having to repeat work already done. Having more eyes on code and open data and more people using it means that issues can be spotted – and it increases the chance of further innovation.

Sharing in general means that more people learn about the project and can therefore be benefited by it. The more people who know about it, the more opportunity there is for further innovation and collaboration – which are likely to keep improving the original project.

One-size-fits-all scaling will be unlikely

We think our tools and guidance are useful but they will not solve all of the problems.

Scaling is a complicated process, and it will be difficult to directly pick one project up and immediately use it in another area – but this is a good thing. Different areas and different people have different needs, challenges and priorities. Successfully scaled projects will take the fundamentals from one and tailor them to their own area to fit their specific needs.

We hope that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government will continue to support projects who are looking to scale and collaborate – such as those in the local digital fund. Incentivising this behaviour is valuable and can begin to show others the value of designing to scale.

Next steps

We want people to use the checklist and tell us about it via our contact form or by tweeting us at @ODIHQ using the hashtag #DesignToScale.

We hope that people share their project stories so that more people can learn about them and learn from them.

What is the ODI doing next?

The ODI will continue to build on this work by supporting organisations with designing their projects to scale, and to scale to other areas.