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Data analytics key for public sector

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Data analytics is a quick, fool-proof way to improve service delivery and uncover new revenue streams in the public sector, writes Kroshlen Moodley, GM: public sector and utilities at SAS.
It’s time to be frank: If the public sector truly wants to improve service delivery and citizen engagement, uncover new revenue streams, and clamp down on fraud and corruption – and put the economy back onto a growth trajectory – it needs to start analysing the vast volumes of data it has at its disposal.
If it doesn’t, it will never know that there are problems – with service delivery, with procurement, with revenue collection, or with any other public sector vertical. Advanced data analytics identifies problems and then tells you exactly how to fix them. No suggestions, no solutions that may or may not work, no guesswork, but the exact action needed to turn things around, based on indisputable fact.
One would expect the public sector to jump at the chance to improve efficiencies and to better deliver on its mandates, especially if it wants to grow its supporter base. Yet only a handful of public sector departments and enterprises have cottoned on to the benefits of advanced data analytics.

What’s the hold-up?
To the service providers who understand the value that advanced data analytics can bring to any organisation, it almost hurts to try to understand why analytics is not entrenched within the public sector.
Here are a few possible reasons:
* Although many organisations are foregoing investing in infrastructure platforms and are rather consuming services through the cloud, many still view software as a grudge purchase. By the time they’ve justified the purchase to management, made the investment and trained users on the software, the business requirement might have changed, making the investment obsolete.
* The public sector has unique challenges, including long sales cycles, difficult bureaucratic processes, legislative constraints, complicated tender processes and continuous changes in decision-makers. This makes it hard for service providers to demonstrate the value of their solutions.
* There is still a lack of commitment at an executive government level to drive the ICT agenda in South Africa. Department shuffles and policy uncertainty have delayed important decisions on, and implementations of, digital legislation.
* The role of the CIO has evolved into that of a chief digital officer. The name implies that it’s no longer just about information management but a hybrid of considerations that enable businesses and keep them engaged with customers. This is what digital officers should be focussing on; not on maintaining servers.

Start now or be forced
The public sector can resist change as long as possible but, soon, it will have no choice but to consolidate, analyse and learn from its data. At some point, citizens, who are already active and engaged on social media, will force that change.
Speaking of social media, when it comes to improving service delivery, analysing social media data is the ideal starting point. By monitoring conversations and understanding citizen sentiment, government can predict service delivery protests before they break out. The data will tell them that there’s a problem brewing and what to do about it, allowing government to take action – proactively.
Another easy starting point is by using readily accessible Stats SA data, gathered from censuses and population surveys. Municipalities can drill down into the data to understand how many households are headed up by children. This could be a reason why the dropout rate for Grade 9s in a particular area is so high – as one example.
The bottom line: the data is there. Government just needs to start using it.

Demonstrating value, quickly
Data can be a confusing beast. Analysing it, even more so. But with open source technologies and the ability to adopt solutions on an as-you-need-it basis, getting started – and getting immediate results – is a lot easier than many people think.
We’ve already established that information is available, for free. But until the public sector sees value in the data, it will never buy into analytics.
So, how can service providers demonstrate value without the requisite software investment or commitment from the top?
Quite easily, through what I call “quick wins”.
Take reporting as an example. Every government department has to report on something. But data could be spread across myriad spreadsheets and text documents, which is a nightmare to manage. Applying analytics to reporting – to consolidate all the information and streamline the reporting process – is the most rudimentary application of data analytics, but also one of the most valuable to any government department. By using an advanced analytics and reporting tool, governments can improve their efficiencies and reduce the time it takes to produce reports – almost overnight.

Land and expand
By showing value in small pockets, like with reporting, service providers are more likely to get the buy-in they need to sell more licenses, more services and more value to the public sector.
That value could extend to helping tax authorities understand suspicious taxpayer behaviour, who has the highest probability of defaulting on payments, and who might be hiding tax sources. By analysing procurement processes, government can easily identify things like duplicate invoices, split invoices and suspicious activity. By applying analytics at a customs level, government can clamp down on illegal imports and increase tariff collection.
These three examples show that, when government understands and learns from its data, it can easily find new revenue streams. This is crucial in the current economic climate, which is characterised by slowing GDP growth and a growing debt book.

Bottom line
The role of any CIO is no longer to keep the lights on. It’s to improve efficiencies, increase revenue and support and drive government’s public sector strategy. It’s time for CIOs to take a stand and to commit to investing in a data analytics strategy that will support government’s service delivery mandates. The traditional process modes entrenched in the public sector are no longer working. It’s time for change.