How data-literate do Senior Leaders in Government need to be?
There was a time when it would be inconceivable to imagine senior Government Ministers and officials addressing the nation accompanied by a series of charts and statistics, but over the course of the pandemic it has become relatively normal. Our Leaders are more reliant on data and statistical literacy than ever before and through the Code of Practice for Statistics have a commitment to demonstrating good use of data.
There has been rising use of data and statistics across Government over recent years; the increasing appetite for evidence-based policy-making (the ‘Nudge Unit’ perhaps being the most public example), compelling visual communications of data (as evidenced by departmental statistical releases awash with colourful charts), and new data science techniques such as machine learning increasing in their use. This shift is deliberate and strongly supported from the centre of Government, perhaps best summarised in Rt. Hon Michael Gove’s Ditchley Lecture, in which he calls on Government “to evaluate data more rigorously […] to evaluate policy successes and delivery failures”, with the help of “data analytics specialists”. His reasons are clear – “it is imperative that we learn the hugely valuable lessons that lie buried in our data”.
But Gove also highlights a hurdle we must first overcome to achieve this – “Government must also ask itself if its people have the skills necessary for the challenges that I have set out”. With many Senior Civil Servants being Humanities Graduates, & the largest source of Graduate-entry Civil Servants continuing to be so – there are many of our Senior Leaders who may not have had much formal training on data or statistics since GCSE’s or O-levels. Given this, we need to ensure that there is suitably high-quality training on data & statistics accessible to our current and future Senior Leaders.
What does a Senior Leader in Government need to know?
The first challenge is is to communicate that statistics are accessible and to inspire Senior Leaders with concrete examples of their value. This is no mean feat(!) – data and statistical training can often be intimidating. If it only caters for those who are ‘data-curious’ then it likely alienates the target audience. Focussing on making training relevant and of direct value to the learner is crucial.
The second challenge is to turn Senior Leaders into more effective consumers and commissioners of statistics – since, as Senior Leaders, this is largely their role when it comes to statistics. Effective consumers meaning that they are able to scrutinise the data they are presented, and aren’t hoodwinked by misleading headlines which might misuse a relative risk in place of an absolute risk, to give one common example. Effect commissioners meaning that they ask for the right analysis to support the decisions they make and understand the importance of transparency – making the analysis behind the decisions open when possible, and choosing the right visualisations to communicate their messages.
Crucially, third we need to improve the interface between Senior Leaders & analytical professionals. Senior Leaders don’t need to be able to produce complex analysis nor deeply critique a scientific paper, but they do need to be able to ask the right questions and request the correct support from Government Analysts who can.
The fourth and final objective is to give Senior Leaders an awareness of the opportunities and risks presented by new data science techniques, such as machine learning, which are undoubtedly having an increased impact on work across Government.
How do you teach Senior Leaders these skills?
Recently we have worked with stakeholders across Government, such as ONS’s Data Science Campus, the Government Digital Service, the Government Statistical Service and the Behavioural Insights Team to create an offering which addresses the challenges outlined above, a ‘Data Masterclass for Senior Leaders’.
We chose to make it available to Senior Leaders within Government as a 5-10 hour online course so that we could achieve maximum scale, whilst also protecting the health of participants who are largely, of course, working from home at the moment.
The Masterclass comprises a mix of 10-15 minute engaging talks from some of the UK’s leading experts on data & statistics such as Sir David Spiegelhalter, Dr Hannah Fry, & Sir Ian Diamond, with compelling data-exemplary case studies from across Government, to really bring the concepts to life. Feedback so far has been strongly positive from the 76 Senior Civil Servants who have completed the course, with an average rating of 95%, and comments like the below reassuring us that we’ve at least succeeded in achieving objective one of the above!
“A really fabulous course. Accessible and relevant – you managed to bring what could have been quite a dry issue to life, and make it not too complicated for the data-challenged”
Going forward, we’re looking forward to scaling the Data Masterclass in partnership with the ONS Data Science Campus and making it available to every Senior Civil Servant. We hope this upskilling supports the brilliant work of many stakeholders in Government’s use of data and statistics, so that we can derive the “hugely valuable lessons” that lie within our data, in a way that is responsible and respects the privacy of UK citizens.