Five steps to improving data literacy in the APS

From helping police forces to reduce crime rates to better identifying the healthcare needs of patients, data is increasingly being used to improve the efficiency of the Australian Public Service (APS) and deliver the agile services that citizens expect, writes Charlie Farah.

In a show of support for data being an essential component to inform outcomes delivered by the APS, the Office of the National Data Commissioner (ONDC) recently released the “Foundational Four”.

The aim of the four foundational data practices—leadership, data strategy, governance and asset discovery—is to “[provide] guidance for agencies on how they can start improving their data practices and address the technical and cultural challenges that can limit their ability to get the most out of their data”.

In this statement, the ONDC captured an often overlooked, but extremely important, point: culture is just as important as technical know-how when aiming to deliver data-driven outcomes.

Charlie Farah

Many public sector leaders recognise the value in driving decisions based on data, especially in the COVID-19 era. However, we frequently see agencies falter because they fail to drive a data-literate culture.

According to the Human Impact of Data Literacy, though 45 per cent of public sector workers feel empowered within their organisations to make better decisions using data, the same amount confessed to feeling overwhelmed and unhappy at work at least once a week when reading, working with and analysing data. 

COVID-19 has seen to it that it’s never been more important for people to understand the information being presented to them every day. With this in mind, here are five steps public sector leaders can take to support their workers to become more data literate:

Crown a data champion

APS agencies should begin with appointing a data champion, typically a chief data officer (CDO) or chief information officer (CIO), to identify opportunities that align with and tangibly impact the organisation’s objectives.

This person’s role is to act as a data ambassador across the organisation, working with stakeholders to identify opportunities to better use data and has the authority to establish and implement a change management plan.

This said, no one person can drive a data literate culture alone. Thus, a key function of the data champion role is setting clear expectations for the data-oriented working practices that need to be adopted. This helps establish accountability for the adoption of new ways of working for individual employees and senior leadership. A top-down approach is critical to delivering real change and will ensure employees understand the positive contribution data can have to their own role and the broader organisation.

Preparation is key

Before embarking upon a data strategy, it’s important to analyse the current state of data-informed decision making across the organisation and pinpoint potential barriers to success, including the information silos that may exist.

Often it is not only access to data that may be the barrier but the access to combinations of data from different teams or portfolios. Only when these barriers are removed can we truly drive new insights and improvement opportunities.  

Once this is understood, the data champion should work with senior stakeholders in each department to ensure every employee has the skills, data (through integrations and combinations) and tools needed to succeed with data in their role.

This reconnaissance work might involve coordinating focus groups with different teams to understand how they are using data and what further access and tools they need.

Conducting data literacy assessments, which measure the ability to read, understand and work with data, rather than technical expertise, will provide an understanding of skill levels. While these steps take additional time, they can improve adoption rates down the line.

Armed with a holistic view of employees’ use of data, the data champion can identify and focus on the investments that will empower employees to deliver against the organisation’s goals.

Provide employees with the right tools

The data champion should work with the organisation’s IT team to ensure data tools serve the needs of each user. These tools will look dramatically different across skill levels and departments, for example, a finance analyst compared to a HR manager.

To encourage the uptake of data-oriented working practices, tools that are put forward for users should meet the following criteria:

Relevant: Does this tool provide appropriate and useful insights that can inform the decision-making process for that role?

Consumable: Is the information presented in a way that can be easily digested?

Embedded: Can this tool be embedded into existing software, such as HCM or CRM, so that it’s easy to integrate data insights into the user’s working practices? 

These tools should maximise the full potential of humans and machines through a combination of data, technology and reimagined processes to capitalise on these investments.

Data literacy can be trained

We are facing a significant data literacy skills deficit in Australia, with just one-fifth of the workforce reporting that they are fully confident in their ability to read, communicate with and make decisions using data.

Data literacy training is important to help employees of all levels use data with confidence. This can take many forms—some organisations integrate data literacy training into existing skills initiatives, while others provide standalone e-learning courses or specialised classroom training for staff.

Regardless of the execution, data literacy training should be a continuous learning program to ensure skillsets are continually reinforced and developed. The data champion must therefore work closely with HR teams to evolve the program every year in line with the organisation’s changing use of data and employee needs.

Don’t rest on your laurels

To extract the greatest value from data, APS agencies should be constantly exploring where opportunities are to better inform processes and decision making.

In collaboration with the data champion, leaders have two critical responsibilities here: firstly, they must ensure this process becomes ingrained in the organisation’s DNA. Secondly, they must ensure that employee skill levels, access to data and tools are continuously reassessed to ensure they can deliver on these new opportunities.

We are living in a time when we all understand that having access to reliable, accurate and up-to-date data is critical to decision making. However, too few leaders lead from the front and recognise that the true benefits of data will only be realised when all public servants are comfortable and confident using data to inform the decisions they make every day.

By following these five steps, APS agencies will be able to unlock the potential for data-informed decision making and deliver the services and experiences that citizens demand by working with data much more productively.

Charlie Farah is Director – Healthcare and Public Sector APAC for Qlik

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