During our lives, we all use community services. From an older person dealing with isolation, to a disabled person seeking adaptations to their home – these free or low cost services help people to live a decent, healthy life.
Legally, every local council in the UK has an obligation to share information about local community services. However, currently the systems in which the data is stored are difficult to navigate and sometimes broken. Users, staff and councils struggle to find and verify accurate information about the services they require. This means that citizens can’t access the services they need, councils are wasting money and services are commissioned that don’t match user demand.
Creating a language for data
With this challenge in mind, three local councils (Adur and Worthing, Buckinghamshire, and Devon) approached Snook to explore the business case for a data standard for community service data that could be shared across the public sector. Data standards are like a language for data. They make it possible to compare and integrate information from different sources. They’re important. In order to share, exchange, and understand data, we must first standardise the format as well as quality.
Our first objective was to figure out who was using the information, and for what. From data custodians to homeless service users, during 49 in-depth interviews we started to unpick the complexities across all three counties.
For parents seeking childcare, it’s easier to navigate the system and access the help needed because they know specifically what they’re looking for. For someone struggling with mental health and addiction, understanding which services will best meet their needs – let alone how to access them – can be emotionally and logistically tricky, so they might need a referral and other forms of support to enter a service. However, it’s important that community service data must meet the needs of both these users.
“When you are struggling to pay rent and council tax, you don’t know how to prioritise. Our advisors are trained in certain legal areas to help people deal with things in the right order.”
People search for and organise service information according to when they need it – it’s human nature. This also happens with community services. For frequently contacted services, referrers will often have printed lists of phone numbers and emails by their desk or stored in their phone. Sometimes key service information is stored in their heads.
“I’ve worked here for over ten years. I know who to speak to.”
At the other end of the scale, there are services that referrers very rarely contact. They may exist outside their own sector and geographical area. Whilst in an ideal world this information could be easily found in a service directory, slow systems, siloed information, difficult navigation and low quality data mean that most people turn to Google. Being mindful of these different forms of behaviour is important when designing how information is displayed and searched for.
We also learnt that data quality means different things to different people. For the NHS, if they refer someone to a service, they need to be certain that the information is accurate and up to date. At the other end of the spectrum, councils trying to capture information about local community groups whose information is constantly changing can’t hope to meet the same standards of quality. A data standard must therefore account for these differing data quality needs.
“Some databases have stayed stagnant for years. I would hate to be part of sharing a database with someone whose information I can’t trust.”
- £11m Potential yearly savings
We synthesised the above highlights and many others into 200 common themes, 40 categories, and 70 concept sketches which were presented in a report. The report enables the councils to turn talk into action by building a business case for data standards.
If implemented, the financial savings could be huge. Simply avoiding the duplication of effort in verifying and managing service information across multiple directories could lead to cost savings of up to £11.69m per year in the UK.
With better data we can build better services. With increased access to community support we can alleviate pressure on urgent and emergency care, help people remain independent, and support the NHS’s ambition of social prescription: preventing lifestyle-related illnesses.
It’s one thing to deliver community services, but by gathering and organising better data we can design smarter and more human ways for people to access them.