Digital facelift – How governments can use public web data to boost efficiency in the public sector

Public sector services are essential and often provide the first line of defense for the most vulnerable. However, given governments’ sheer size, and non-profit nature, efficiency isn’t especially incentivized, nor are the entities providing public services notorious for their flexibility and innovative problem-solving.

In the current turmoil in UK politics, it seems Liz Truss’ promises of tax cuts won’t endure her short term as PM and are unlikely to be embraced by her successor, Rishi Sunak. Either way, the gaping hole in the public finances will require a firmer grip on government spending in the efforts to avoid a “profound economic crisis,” as iterated by Sunak. Joined by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Jeremy Hunt, who put it nicely, “To continue delivering the things people care about in the face of inflationary pressures, without making the problem worse through extra spending across the board, we have to take difficult decisions and make government more efficient. That means rooting out waste.”. A firmer grip on spending in a sector that’s already stretched thin is heavily criticized by some; however, that pressure to find solutions, reinvent and innovate has been the engine pushing the private sector for decades and might just be what the public sector needs most.

Efficiency and effectiveness mean minimum spending to achieve maximum impact. To create such an equation, the resources need to be allocated exactly in the areas which will leverage the most influence at any given time – spending sweet spots. Where are they?

One promising place to look is in the ocean of public web data. According to a survey conducted by Bright Data and research firm Vanson Bourne last month, 93% of businesses believe that web data is either “very important” or “crucial” to supporting operations and decision-making across their organizations. Even once-reluctant sectors, like finance and healthcare, are now looking at external web sources to gather the most critical insights. Web data can be collected and structured accurately to solve issues at the heart of the public sector with relatively minimal effort and cost, it’s just a matter of understanding where to look and how to put it to use.

Government use of public web data

Close monitoring of certain websites in the public sphere can provide incredible insight into market trends and preempt crises by assuming a proactive legislative approach instead of a reactive one. Monitoring prices of groceries, cars, houses, hospital services, and the like via business websites can give authorities a rich understanding of supply and demand projecting on the public’s well-being. For example, tracking pricing and availability of electric cars and charging infrastructure to put in place and adjust electric vehicle policy.

From hotel occupancy to commuting and flight services websites, the information publicly available for different local governments to better understand travel patterns could be key to regulating their resources and planning different city-run events, public transportation, and various services. In addition, collecting sentiment data from local public forums and social media sites can provide insight into public priorities, like local infrastructure, transport, crime, and social issues, all in real-time.

Of course, public web data alone is not the only type of data governments should rely on. Such data should be used in conjunction with traditional sources, including ONS data, to ensure that policymaking is inclusive and informed.

Building trust

As in all relationships, trust is easier to lose than it is to gain, all the more so when it comes to the relationship between governments and the public. Ethical collection of the data, its proper use, and privacy protection are baseline expectations. Providing transparency regarding what data is collected and how it is used could go a long way to build such sacred trust and perhaps even incentivize the public to share more data willingly and participate in this data-driven solution-finding mission.

If not now, when?

The idea of the strategic use of data by governments to create conditions for improving the quality of public services, increasing the effectiveness of public spending, and safeguarding ethical and privacy considerations is not new. In fact, in an OECD report published in 2019, the issue was comprehensively addressed, and a thorough, data-driven public sector framework was presented. While the all too familiar gap between report-writing and implementation didn’t skip the members of the OECD, in the years following the report, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an accelerator for digitizing government institutions and bringing the use of data to the forefront as a key component for decision making.

The ground to implement data-driven government institutions is fertile, and the political conditions now are just tough enough for the public sector to have to spend its budget accurately and precisely. How else should they start, if not by collecting and analyzing the data available to them?