Blog: Data and analytics can transform social services


Last week I attended the conference “Empowering communities in the information age”, which discussed how not-for-profits could make better use of technology, whether to promote their goals, fundraise, or improve their operations. One aspect I was particularly interested in was how to improve the delivery of social services, through better use of data.

Recent developments in technology and analytics have already transformed many service industries – think of banking, music and retail. These same developments could support new ways of doing things in social services, to improve the lives of the people who need those services and deliver better value from taxpayers’ dollars.

Social services are provided in a dizzying array of ways, and we often don’t know what initiatives have the most impact on the people they are designed to help. One place we can start is to evaluate the current services to find out what works and what doesn’t. Another is to try a variety of new ways of doing things, and then take the most effective services and apply them in more places and to more clients, as well as withdrawing ineffective services. Social services as a whole needs to become a learning system.

And how do we take the first step in that transformation? Collecting and analysing relevant and timely data about clients, their experience of the system and their outcomes would help people who commission, purchase, provide and use social services to make informed decisions in their different roles.

Data value cycle

Source: OECD, 2014; Productivity Commission.

We think that smart investment in infrastructure that collects, shares and analyses data across the social-services system would vastly increase capacity to design and provide effective services, and to target resources to where they have the greatest effect on making people’s lives better.

For example, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has used its huge in-house database on benefit receipt over time as the backbone of its Investment Approach. MSD is linking other data sources, including information from Child, Youth and Family service use, to increase the power of its analytics. The database allows real-time tracking of service performance to contribute to decisions about future investment. This has enabled MSD to identify and successfully channel services to previously under-served client groups, including youth and sole parents.

In 2014, the New Zealand Data Futures Forum (NZDFF) recommended a way forward to realise the potential benefits and mitigate the risks of sharing, linking and using data. Getting value from sharing, linking and using data should follow the principles of inclusion, trust and control: raising public awareness and capability in finding, using and understanding data and the data environment, building trust in the sharing of data, and giving individuals more control over the use of their personal data.

The NZDFF recommendations are an opportunity for the Government, social services providers and clients to explore innovative approaches to addressing social problems and enhancing social outcomes. As a first step, government social services agencies could make progress on sharing their operational data with each other (with appropriate protections). Better use of linked cross-agency data could make the Government’s investment approach to targeting social services more accurate and able to be applied more widely, as well as supporting better integrated and tailored services for clients. It would allow for better visibility of results: for example, commissioners of child services would be able to argue much more convincingly that their investments in the health and safety of disadvantaged children will greatly increase the chances of those children going on to achieve better educational, social and economic outcomes.

If government social services agencies and social services providers collect information on their clients and services in a consistent way, commissioners, providers and evaluators of services could track clients’ use of services across time, and so identify service outcomes and provider performance. This information could then be used to continuously improve how commissioners, providers and clients of social services make decisions.

Safeguarding the privacy of personal data is paramount for government services. The NZDFF principles show there are ways to do that while taking opportunities to use and learn from the data. Sharing data would greatly enlarge the scope for third-party providers to develop innovative approaches to solving social problems. Where individuals give consent, government agencies should permit access to identifiable personal data so as to support the provision of innovative services. An example might be individuals who are at risk of developing diabetes consenting to the use of their personal health data as part of a prevention programme that a provider is offering.

I heard concerns at the conference that NFPs don’t yet have the capacity or the technology to collect data.  Of course significant challenges exist among the opportunities that data and analytics offer. But if these can be addressed, major gains for social services would be realised and would lead to better lives for many New Zealanders.

The Productivity Commission has released a draft report containing a full discussion of these issues and other ways to improve social services. Submissions close on 24 June. We have also published a report by James Mansell on the application of "big data" and data analytics to social services: Handing back the social commons (PDF).

- Ron Crawford, Social Services team

Disclaimer: Blog posts are written by staff members and do not represent the official views of the Productivity Commission.

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