Tag Archives: Wales

Making use of Open Data

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

The Wales Audit Office recently released our first Open Dataset. What happened next? Ben Proctor of Open Data Institute Cardiff talks us through how he made use of the data.

A screenshot of a dynamic map created by Ben Proctor to show levels of Council Tax per head of population in Wales

A screenshot of a dynamic map created by Ben Proctor to show levels of Council Tax per head of population in Wales

Oooo! new data

I was excited to see that the Wales Audit Office had released a set of data as open data. Open data is data that anyone can find access and use and it is the most useful sort of data.

Dyfrig Williams wrote about the process they’d gone through to release this data set (a summary of the audit data from each local authority in Wales for each year). The data is a simple table and you can download it as a CSV file (essentially a file that will work in any spreadsheet programme) here.

But there are problems

I downloaded the file and quickly spotted some problems. These are not errors exactly but just things that are missing or inconsistent and will make some uses of the data a bit harder. But this is not a complaint, because one of the attractive features of open data is that I could resolve these problems. I can do this because the Wales Audit Office have released the data under the Open Government Licence. This tells me I don’t need their permission to do anything with the data and there are no limits to what I can do with it (apart from I have to make it clear where it came from).

I can fix the problems

These are the things I did to my copy of the data.

I changed the format of the “financial year column” because in the Wales Audit Office file some of these are numbers and some are text.

I added a column of GSS codes. GSS codes are codes that are used to identify local authorities (and other boundaries). Having the GSS code means you don’t have to worry about whether the data says Anglesey Council, or Isle of Anglesey Council or Ynys Môn. And with the GSS code I could add “polygons” for each council. Polygons are basically instructions on how to draw the outline of each council and information about where to put the drawing on a map.

With these changes I was able to draw a series of maps showing the level of council tax per head in each local authority and how this has changed over time.

And given the Wales Audit Office an improved file

And I’ve been able to hand back to the Wales Audit Office a KML file. This is a file suitable for use in mapping software. Anyone who wants to visualise the Wales Audit Office data on a map can just open the KML file and get going.

You can download this mapping file yourself.

Why did I do this?

I’m part of the core team at ODI-Cardiff so I get excited about open data.
It took me a very few minutes.
I’m trying to get better at using a Google service called Fusion Tables and this is a good opportunity to experiment.
I’m actually quite interested in what this data might tell us.

Releasing Open Data

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

How can organisations release Open Data? Dyfrig Williams looks at the process of making the data behind the Wales Audit Office’s Local Government Financial Statements report freely available, and shares the dataset at the bottom of this post.

I’ve previously blogged on how the Wales Audit Office is looking to challenge our existing use of data and technology as part of the Cutting Edge Audit project. My role on the project has been to look at how we acquire data.

How does Open Data fit into acquiring data?

The below diagram shows the rationale behind my work. For me, we need to share the data that we have in order to develop our relationships with our client bodies so that we can gather data effectively. Part of this is about “being the change that you want to see.” Auditors are sometimes seen as being risk averse, but in the Good Practice Exchange we’ve seen that when we work differently, we enable others to do the same. A number of local authorities have reported back to us about how they’ve been able to challenge the limitations of the websites that they’re able to visit and the social media that they can access because of how we share knowledge. By making data openly available, we can demonstrate that there is little risk, as long as the process is well managed.

A cycle illustrating that by open data results from how we share data and how it feeds into acquiring data

As I mentioned in my original post, finding an appropriate dataset was more challenging than I thought that it might be. As we often don’t have the right to share the data that we collect from clients during our audits. However after a bit of research, we found the data behind the Local Government Financial Statements report, which is a report on local government bodies’ accounts. This was safe data to release because it’s already available on each council’s website as part of their accounts, but we are the only organisation that collates this data. The data within the report is analysed on a national basis, but by releasing the dataset we can enable councils and other interested stakeholders to look at the data on a county by county basis and to compare and contrast their accounts against others. The data is used by the Wales Audit Office to support local audit work and for general benchmarking. The report itself looks at the quality of accounts, and is based on the data that’s released before amendments – we don’t keep track of prior-period adjustments.

How did we go about making this data open?

Our starting point was a spreadsheet that we use internally that contains the datasets dating back to 2008-09. We were a bit disappointed to learn that the requirements for local authorities to provide this data in this structure has now changed, so there won’t be comparable data available next year. However, this dataset served as a good test for a future approach. In the longer term it would be worth us looking at how we could make continuous data available in order to reduce the burden of reporting requirements. Lucy Knight from Devon County Council has a really useful example that we can draw on in her lunchtime lecture for the Open Data Institute on Making open data happen in local government

We used Hendrik Grothuis’s post on making data open and the Open Data Institute’s Consumers Checklist as rough guides for the process. Our first step in cleaning up the data was to look at which data was ours to share, and which data was already available from other sources. We decided to remove the data that was already made available through StatsWales to avoid duplication, but should you want to think about using this dataset with some of the ones that we used internally, these may provide a good starting point:

We then used CSV Lint to check whether the file was readable. We were pleased to discover that we had a valid file, but we also found ways that we could improve it. We turned the dataset around so that the data items go horizontally and the years go vertically. We also created a null value to indicate where the data was unavailable. A quick Google search was enough for us to discover how to note empty cells.

As a Welsh public sector organisation, we are required to make the data available bilingually, so we sent it to the translators to make sure that we got each technical term exactly right.

Publishing the data

When it came to publishing the data, we decided to publish it as part of this post on the Good Practice Exchange blog. It would be a very lonely looking dataset on an Open Data platform at the moment, but the hope is that we can identify other datasets that we can release going forward. We looked at potential platforms that could be used, including open source options like CKAN and DKAN (both of which would integrate with our Drupal Content Management System), as well as cloud based platforms like Socrata. As an organisation we’re moving to the cloud when it makes sense, but there may be things that we could learn from Audit Scotland’s Innovation Zone, which has been set up to allow their staff to test new software and platforms in a lightly regulated space. This gives staff the opportunity to test new ways of working.

As per our recent webinar on Open Standards, we’ve chosen to publish the data in CSV instead of a proprietary format like Excel. This means that it can be used by a wide variety of software, and hopefully as wide a variety of people as possible.

It’s now up to us to ensure that this data is discoverable by tagging it effectively, and we will also publicise the dataset through the networks that we’ve built through our prior work on Open Data. Our next challenge is to track how the data is used, so if you do use the dataset, we’d love to have your feedback about the format and what you used it for.

Learning from the Welsh Government

The Welsh Government were a great help throughout my work on the Cutting Edge Audit project. They shared learning from their approaches, and we also attended meetings together to learn more about Cardiff and Monmouthshire Councils’ approaches. It was fascinating to hear that the Welsh Government’s own staff use StatsWales to share and gather data as it’s open and transparent. This is something for us to think about in our own journey forward – how we can make data more accessible for both internal and external stakeholders.

We ended up using the Welsh Government’s approach to Metadata as a template for our own work. Metadata is a set of data that describes and gives information about other data, and it’s really important because it gives context around the data that is being shared. You can find the metadata at the bottom of this post alongside a link to the data itself.


Your feedback on our approach here is really important. As this is an initial test of how we might make data open and shareable, your feedback will be used to shape how this might progress. As an organisation, we’re very keen to look at how we can make better use of data to help public services improve, and also to walk the talk in terms of our own digital practice. The Auditor General for Wales talks about enabling innovation through well managed risks before every one of our shared learning events. We’re looking to share our own learning so that people can learn from our experiences, be they good or bad. We always say that there’s no point reinventing the wheel. By working openly and transparently, we hope that organisations can build on what we’re doing so that they can share data as effectively as possible in order to improve the services that they provide.

Dataset: Local Government Financial Statements


Title Data from Local Government Financial Statements 2008-09 to 2015-16
Last update 01/04/2017
Next update No longer updated.
Publishing organisation Wales Audit Office
Source Local Government Financial Statements 2008-09 to 2015-16
Contact email good.practice@audit.wales
Lowest level of geographical disaggregation Local authorities
Geographical coverage Local authorities
Languages covered English and Welsh
Data licensing You may use and re-use this data free of charge in any format or medium, under the terms of the Open Government License – see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence


Enabling staff to make better use of data

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

How can we enable Wales Audit Office staff to make better use of data? Dyfrig Williams reflects on learning from our Cutting Edge Health Audit prototype.

A screenshot of our intranet, which shows the latest health news and data

In my work on the Cutting Edge Audit project, I’ve been looking at how we can bring together data from public bodies in a way that’s open to everyone and easy to access so that we can get further insight as auditors. The Health Team at the Wales Audit Office kindly volunteered to work with us so that we could look at what this might mean in practice.

In order to develop the parameters for the work, I developed personas for staff in various roles so that we could be better informed about what work we needed to undertake. This really helped us to identify how research time is used and who is doing that research.

The feedback that I received was that data is difficult to access, so we’ve developed a prototype to bring useful health data and information together in one place.

Testing approaches

Our initial attempt to bring this data together in one place is very much a proof of concept to see how this could be progressed further. Our initial thinking was to try and create a data one-stop shop for each health board, as well as a page for national work that covers the whole of Wales or the UK. When we thought about what a functioning prototype might look like, we decided to use a national site as our test.

We initially decided to use Sharepoint Online because it gave us the opportunity to look at how we could develop our use of the service to make data more accessible internally. Unfortunately whilst this worked as an initial test, we could only make the site available to a selected number of users, as we’re currently testing it with a small user group. We really wanted to share the results throughout the organisation so that staff could think about whether this type of approach would be useful in their work, so we decided to host the information on our intranet (The Hub), which is a Drupal site.

We used feedback from the Performance Support Officer to bring together information feeds in order to save research time. We created widgets from RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication feeds, which deliver regularly changing web content from news sites, blogs and other online publishers) where available. We also generated our own widget (a small application that can be installed within a web page) for a Twitter feed that we generated from a Good Practice Exchange Twitter list. We embedded these feeds as IFrames within the site.

Making data more user friendly

We wanted to make data easier to understand and use. There was a strong feeling from the staff that I interviewed that knowledge and understanding of data shouldn’t be siloed, so we looked at how we could make data more accessible.

We decided to use Microsoft’s Power BI (a suite of business analytics tools to develop insight) to make health data sets more accessible and easy to understand. This meant that we didn’t have to buy any software, and that we could host the data directly through the Power BI service. We didn’t use any sensitive data for our test so it wasn’t a problem to publish it directly to the web. There was mixed feedback from staff that I interviewed as to whether the site should include private data, so we will need to look at our options again should we choose to go down this route.

The data sets that we used are publicly available and use APIs (Application Programming Interfaces, which access the features or data of an operating system, application, or other web service). This means that the Power BI data tools are linked directly to StatsWales for the data so that there’s no manual downloading of data after its set up. It also means that we’re always using the most current data that’s available.

Where do we go from here?

The use of our prototype has now been developed and extended so that it can be used as a data tool for a Primary Care project in health so that colleagues can use it to analyse data for their own Health Board, so it’s great to know that the work has already been of practical value.

Our use of widgets and APIs mean that the amount of work needed to maintain the current information that the site holds is very limited. However, if we want to develop the data that it holds, we need to think about who might be responsible for its upkeep, should it be seen as valuable.

The next step for us as an organisation is to use the personas that we generated, as well as informal feedback from this work, to look at what an effective data site and service might look like, and how that might be adapted for other parts of the organisation. That will enable us to learn from any mistakes that we’ve made so that we do things differently in the future, and also to build on our successes. And if we can build on that learning, we’ll be well placed to develop our work in order to be the cutting edge audit office that we aspire to be.

GovCamp Cymru: Can we change behaviour for better public services?

At GovCamp Cymru Dyfrig Williams pitched a session on how behaviour change theory can help to embed ideas generated at unconferences into organisations. Below he outlines what he learnt from the session.

This year’s GovCamp Cymru was a great event. I pitched a session on changing the behaviour of people within organisation to enable public service improvement. Whilst I’d done some work beforehand on key issues that I felt needed to be resolved and how we might do that, the session was very much a pooling of ideas and experiences, so I’ve got to say a big thank you to everyone who came and to everyone who provided input before, during and after the main discussion. The Storify that we put together gives a good overview of what was said during the day.

So in terms of my session, here are the key things that I learnt:

Leadership is important

That might seem like an incredibly obvious statement, and in some senses it is. We spoke about how staff model the behaviour that leaders display within their organisations. But what was heartening was that there was discussion around what constituted a leader – it’s not necessarily about being at the top of your organisational hierarchy. It might be about thought leadership, or staff might take it upon themselves to lead change within their organisation or instil that leadership role in other people. It’s all too easy to cede responsibility to others because we don’t have a leadership role bestowed upon us, so it was great to hear attendees talk about what they could do to seize the initiative. But we also discussed how some organisations are hostile to mavericks, so it’s important to think about how you are perceived within your own organisation.

The behaviours that good leaders might display started with really simple things like saying “Thank you” to make staff feel valued. Spice Cardiff talked about opening up agendas of meetings, and we also spoke about the importance of risk taking. The public sector can often be risk averse, but we dug a little deeper to think about why that might be. The point that “The people who design change have less to lose than the people who implement it” really struck a chord with me, and if we are asking people to take a leap of faith on working differently, then we need to ensure that people feel supported and that they won’t be hung out to dry if things go wrong. We spoke about approaches that may help us to mitigate risk, in particular the value of prototyping to demonstrate new ways of working when you’re told that a new method can’t work.

Legislation is a sword and a shield

I love this quote, which came from a discussion on the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. We spoke about how the act could be used as a shield to safeguard staff who are trying to make change happen by providing a clear rationale for change, or a sword to fight with in order to take the initiative to kickstart meaningful change within our organisations. People seemed to agree that all levers of change should be aligned, but that there wasn’t a “one-size fits all approach”. Legislation certainly plays a role in behavioural change, but so does culture, leadership, politics and the public that we work with and for. We need a range of tools and tactics so that we use the most appropriate tool for any given situation.


A photo by Nigel Bishop from GovCamp Cymru

We learn by talking, thinking and doing

Despite it being a session about organisational change, there was nobody that worked in Human Resources at the session. Regardless, the consensus seemed to be that organisational learning was too important to be left with one centralised team and that we should all take responsibility for it as individuals, especially as there are so many online resources available.

In the session people agreed that one of the ways in which unconferences can add value is by growing networks and learning from others. But we have to consider how inclusive we’re being – are we bringing people from our organisations along with us on the change journey? As I mentioned in the discussion, Carl Haggerty has written a great post where he reflects on how he learns and how he helps others. Another way of embedding change within an organisation is to get someone who’s already done it to come in to talk about it and demonstrate the difference. The connections that we make at unconferences can help us to spread good practice and new ways of working.

There was also a discussion around having ‘champion’ roles within the organisation, where the pressure to spread the change is taken away from an individual and shared much wider. An example was given around the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, where the responsibility is shared around staff members to embed the cultural change within their teams in order to meet the requirements of the act.

Will GovCamp Cymru help to change behaviour?

The points raised at my session certainly made me think again about how change takes place within organisations. I’m currently working on a Data and Tech project that will look at how the Wales Audit Office challenges our existing use of data and technology, the assumptions we normally take for granted, and how we can offer radical solutions when we use new technology to transform our audit and business processes. If we’re looking to change the way we work, we’re going to need to bring our colleagues with us on the journey. The feedback from this session has been really helpful, and I’d love to hear from anyone else who puts the learning from the session into practice within their organisations in order to deliver better public services.

The Big Lottery Fund: Making a BIG Comms impact

The Big Lottery Fund is responsible for distributing 40% of money raised for good causes by the National Lottery. Communications Officer, Rosie Dent tells us how one communications campaign is having a meaningful, measurable impact.

A photo of Rosie Dent, which she used for her Lottery Selfie

Rosie Dent’s #LotterySelfie

In Wales, we award around £100,000 a day to projects that aim to improve the lives of people and communities most in need. Last year, we launched our strategic framework for 2015-21 which sets out what people can expect from us as a funder over the next six years. Our vision is that people should be in the lead in improving their lives and communities.

As a Communications Team, we feel that one of the best ways we can put people in the lead is by putting them in the spotlight and to give them the tools to promote the fantastic work they’re doing, no matter how big or small that may be. This thinking led to us launching our #LotterySelfie campaign.

The campaign has two strands, one is to encourage projects to share images with us using the #LotterySelfie hashtag. The aim is that by us sharing these images, projects can potentially reach new audiences. This strand of the campaign has been running since January 2016 and has up to 600,000 impressions each week on Twitter.

The second strand of the campaign is our ‘Surprise Lottery Letter’. Every year our staff assess thousands of applications and send out thousands of letters notifying applicant’s that their grant application has been successful. With such a huge volume, it can be easy to forget how truly life changing Lottery funding can be to communities in Wales. That’s what led to us thinking, why don’t we get more staff visiting projects and make the projects feel special by delivering some of the grant offer letters by hand?

The organisation we surprised for our first Surprise Lottery Letter was NuHi Ltd in Cardiff who provide substance misuse awareness, education and training for the wider community. They will use the £4,775 grant to create an IT room and website so people recovering from substance misuse can access information and support. The surprise was delivered to Holly, a volunteer who came out of rehab that very same day. We kept the surprise simple, all we took with us was a tablet, an offer letter and of course, a giant cheque (because who doesn’t dream of receiving a giant cheque?), making it an extremely low budget campaign, costing nothing except staff time.


What was the outcome for NuHi?

When asked how she felt about the surprise, Founder Yaina said: “The volunteers are still buzzing, they’re on yet another NuHi”. Yaina felt that staff morale has increased since the surprise.

Within two weeks of the surprise, social media exposure directly resulted in another organisations approaching them about to do some work in partnership and an invitation to guest speak at an entrepreneurial event.

The exposure also led to public donations being made, leading to NuHi setting up a pledge button on their website. We feel this is an extremely positive outcome for NuHi as donations could increase the organisations sustainability. It also led to three new enquiries being made for support from people recovering from substance misuse.

A photo of people involved with NuHi Ltd.

NuHi Ltd.

What there an impact on staff at the Big Lottery Fund?

Liz Hertogs who assessed the application and filmed the surprise told us, “It was my first ever project visit so it was great to meet one of our grant holders, and we were able to give them our offer pack and talk about what happens next at the same time. To be there when they found out they have been funded by us was truly special.”

Positive comments from staff and committee members about the video flooded in, we’ve never seen staff so excited about a communications product before! For days you could overhear staff talking about it around the office, it truly felt like it created a buzz around both of our offices, in Cardiff and Newtown. And that buzz was infectious, comments came in from Big Lottery Fund teams in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as Camelot and the National Lottery’s Good Causes team.

What coverage did the video receive?

Within days the video had been seen by over 8,800 people on Facebook, making it one of our best ever performing post on the platform. Social media content was shared by the National Assembly for Wales, Lottery Good Causes and We Are Cardiff, to name a few.

The video and story of volunteer Holly were featured on Wales Online, the article was shared on social media over 340 times.


As other Communications teams likely find, it can often be difficult to evidence the outcomes of your work, especially hard outcomes. However the impact of this campaign has been incredible and exceeded our expectations. Many of the outcomes, such as public donations and enquiries for support from the project where unexpected and demonstrate how communications, especially digital media, can add value to have a meaningful impact on an organisation and communities.

If you would like to find out more about the Big Lottery Fund Wales, please visit our website, follow @BigLotteryWales on Twitter or like Big Lottery Fund Wales on Facebook.

NHS Hack Day: Data Visualisation

Data Visualisation / Delweddu DataIt’s been a packed first session at the NHS Hack Day. The pitches have taken place, and people have chosen where to put their energy and efforts. The hard work has begun.

I’ve caught up with Martin Chorley, who’s a lecturer at the School of Computer Science and Informatics at Cardiff University. The group working on his pitch includes students of Computational Journalism, who are looking to make health statistics and data easier to find, view and understand for different areas.

The data will be displayed on a map of Wales, and will clearly and easily convey information around issues like Cancer patient waiting lists, numbers of beds at Hospitals or even the spending levels of their Health Board.

This approach takes inspiration from NHSmaps.co.uk, which shows data for clinical commissioning groups in England, but it will also add further information to what’s available on the site.

NHS Hack Day: Data Visualisation / Diwrnod Hacio'r GIG: Delweddu DataAnybody who works in either local authorities or the NHS in Wales will know that the footprint of public services differ greatly, with the boundary of no one Health Board matching that of a Local Authority perfectly.

Instead of letting this get in the way of creating the tool, they’re cleverly getting around this by amending the metadata of the information they’re collating. This will result in the boundaries displayed on the map being amended according to the details of its information source. There is even the possibility of displaying the information to the level of a Lower Super Output Area.

It’s been impressive to see how people are negotiating issues that have so often been sticking points when we look to improve public services. Proof that working in new and different ways can result in interesting approaches to old problems.


Reflecting on GovCamp Cymru

GovCamp Cymru

Even though I had never experienced an unconference, I still had a few preconceived ideas of what I might expect from GovCamp Cymru. I was intrigued as to how it might differ to what I call traditional broadcast conferences, where a few speakers share their views of a particular topic as part of a predetermined agenda.

My previous experience was turned completely on its head in a positive way. It was quite a liberating experience, watching and listening to a few people pitching a particular issue and then, the attendees making a decision with their feet as to which pitch they wanted to attend, and to help shape and share potential solutions.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the distances that some of the attendees had come from, with attendees in Wales travelling from as far west as St Davids and as far north as Bangor, and with others travelling from across the border from Liverpool and London.

At the beginning of GovCamp Cymru, attendees were asked who was attending a GovCamp event for the first time. By the old democratic process of a show of hands, about 70% of people were attending for the first time. So my preconceived idea that the event would be full of the usual suspects was blown away.

Have a listen to the experiences of a couple of other attendees.

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There was a lot of sharing of ideas and different approaches. There certainly was a lot of ‘what’s your twitter handle, I’ll send you a link to what we were talking about’ kind of conversations. So the sharing was very instantaneous.

So, if you think of GovCamp Cymru as the coalition of the willing, I was quite intrigued as to what difference this event would make when we got back to our day jobs on Monday morning. One attendee even said ‘there’s Sunday first, and social media will enable some new conversations to start, others to continue and gain traction.’GovCamp Cymru

The following morning I read all tweets under the #gccy14 hashtag, where there were people thanking the organisers and sponsors of the event, evidence of attendees sharing more information and ideas, and people asking questions about certain sessions.

And that’s where I picked up more information about of the sessions I didn’t attend. Jo Carter of The Satori Lab had pitched about March Madness. She had already blogged about it and shared the very useful outputs.

So as a result, we’re going to share Jo’s blog to help promote her simple but very useful approach to the annual issue of end of year spend in public services. Several other attendees thought so too, so we’ll share those through our blog, which is evidence itself of GovCamp Cymru’s impact.


Don’t buy hardware

Effective use of Information Technology

We all love it.  Hardware has flashing lights, cool lines, and looks really good in racks, humming away.  It impresses strangers; validates us as experts.   It’s also wildly expensive and fantastically underused.  Google (yes, that Google) discovered on the early 2000’s that their data centres were running at 10% of their potential maximum.  Much of the UK public sector is a lot worse with the Cabinet Office suggesting that some of us get as little as 5% utilisation of our most expensive assets.

Ask any IT Head why they spend gazillions on hardware and they’ll say “well, it won’t work without it”, or if the IT Head has an MBA he’ll say “the hardware is central to our mission”. Which raises an interesting question – why do we feel it necessary to buy the means of production for computing when we have no qualms at all about buying-in electricity, or water for that matter?

Back in September over 60 IT specialists, and me, met at WAO seminars in both North and South Wales to share good practice (viz, ‘nick ideas’) and, hopefully, have their preconceptions challenged. I like a good challenge to my preconceptions and the scepticism around Cloud Computing was not so much challenging my preconceptions as mugging them.

Cloud Computing / Cyfrifiadura Cwmwl

There were a lot of reasons why not to adopt Cloud. There’s security.  Everyone will have access to your data. There’s regulation, the Americans will arrest your Chief Executive……. and, well, there’s no flashing lights are there? None of this is necessarily true.  Of course you can mess up security on the cloud in the same way you can leave your own security in a hash if you try, but there’s no real reason why you should, particularly.

I like easy computing. I like to provide a service that just works.  I don’t want to run a datacentre any more than I want to run a power station or manage a reservoir. For me, Cloud Computing offers a chance to buy just as much as I want, when I want it. Period, as the Americans say.  No more capacity than I need.

This isn’t easy for us as a profession. We tend to think of IT as being an exercise in hardware management, rather than service to customers.

Here’s a thought exercise. Imagine your Chief Executive has banned the purchase of anything physical at all. Server provision is easy to purchase through the cloud (and really easy for the public sector through g-cloud), connectivity and firewalls – tick, software as a service – tick, end user devices? More problematic but a good BYOD strategy should see to that. In fact, if you’ve got decent mobile signal coverage (and you can even get around that) you don’t need the building network either.

Of course, little in life is simple, and that isn’t exactly simple either. But it’s worth considering, how much will it cost me if I don’t buy this upgrade but buy it as an on-line service?

It costs a lot to keep all of those servers warm, fed, stroked, and loved.  It might sound like heresy but could you do better, cheaper, with fewer commitments if you bought the service through the cloud?

Not that I’m mildly obsessed, or anything, but on 13 December I’ll be discussing cloud computing: the myths, busted, with Peter Middleton from the Cabinet Office’s g-cloud programme. 2013 has been a pivotal year for public service, a pivotal year in recognising that we cannot continue to deliver under the current model.  We need to be smarter, more collaborative, cheaper, simply better at what we do. Time to ditch some myths.

– Evan Jones, Welsh Government

“What are you really saying?” – Achieving effective overview and scrutiny through active listening

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The ability to freely question decision makers is a powerful expression of democracy. In many ways the act of questioning those in authority can be said to define and represent overview and scrutiny’s challenge role, especially when played out in the public arena.

For many overview and scrutiny committees, however, the aim of questioning is not just challenge for its own sake but as a means to drive improvement in public services and ensure decision making is accountable, inclusive and robust.

Despite a heavy emphasis on the use of questions in scrutiny, I’m not always convinced that sufficient attention is placed on the process of answering. After all, it is a question of give and take and it’s important to strike the right balance. As Mark Twain said, “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”

Whether in a formal accountability capacity or as part of task and finish group inquiry, for me the space between question and answer represents an important frontier zone in which relationships are cultivated and crafted. It’s a form of social exchange which if not managed sensitively can crystallise attitudes into ‘us versus them’. This can prove a real barrier to making best use of elected members’ community leadership role in shaping the future delivery of public services.

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Being called to account by scrutiny or giving evidence as a witness has the potential to generate a range of unsettling feelings for those under the spotlight. Since the ability to obtain and analyse evidence is fundamental in helping committees reach informed recommendations, it makes sense that it should be experienced by those contributing to it as rounded and objective. This is crucial to scrutiny’s credibility and effectiveness; people who feel they haven’t been given a ‘fair hearing’ are more likely to be dismissive and disengaged.

Earlier this year CfPS linked with the Samaritan’s workplace training team to explore how the organisation’s unique approach to listening can inform more reflective forms of communication which can ultimately lead to the development of more responsive local services.

The Samaritans offers a range of confidential services to people who are feeling suicidal or experiencing emotional distress. Listening volunteers talk to anyone who calls, emails or visits a Samaritans branch and are specially trained in the use of the ‘listening wheel’ in providing individuals with support.

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Volunteers listen with focus, using techniques such as clarification, summary and careful use of open questions. The aim is to provide contacts with a safe, non-judgmental environment in which people can explore how they feel.

Active listening allows Samaritan volunteers to suspend their own frame of reference in processing information provided to them by contacts, helping them empathise and better see things from another’s point of view.

By supporting people with their feelings Samaritans are able to get through to the facts. The relatively simple process of talking and being really listened to alleviates distress and helps people reach a better understanding of their situation and the options open to them.

For more information about the Samaritans, please visit their website www.samaritans.org

The insight offered by the Samaritans’ communication methods provides a way to augment the support element of overview and scrutiny’s ‘critical friendship’ role. Active listening lets those practicing scrutiny develop a more accurate understanding of the speaker’s message, leading to the formation of more balanced and productive relationships.

The following five points demonstrate how listening with greater focus can be used to achieve more effective overview and scrutiny:

  1. Active listening demonstrates respect and shows that scrutiny practitioners genuinely want to understand people’s viewpoints even when different to their own.
  2.  It facilitates further disclosure by not judging who is speaking. Disclosure is important in achieving deeper understanding of issues of interest to scrutiny by acknowledging the complexity of real life situations.
  3. Active listening enables contributors to reflect back, allowing them to provide correction in the event practitioners have misunderstood information presented to them. It can be an important means to ensure accuracy and improve the robustness of evidence gathering.
  4. Being attentive helps practitioners stay focused on the conversation and to remember what they hear. It can help overcome situations where councillors are perceived as being more interested in ‘queuing to speak’ than in paying attention to what is being said. It can also avoid unhelpful duplication of questioning.
  5. Active listening can defuse conflict. Fully attending to a speaker can help create an atmosphere of co-operation from which can emerge innovative, co-produced solutions which are more likely to be implemented.

As overview and scrutiny in Wales develops in an environment of austerity, active listening provides a constructive means for it to make a more valuable contribution in the design and delivery of local services. By inviting, authorising and legitimising the public’s views and experiences within decision making, we can achieve better accountability through listening and ultimately improve outcomes for the people of Wales.

The team at CfPS are really looking forward to the joint conference on 28th November. We are delighted to be able to support the event as part of our Welsh Government funded programme and to contribute our collective experience in demonstrating the return on investment in overview and scrutiny.

Rebecca David-Knight, Wales Scrutiny Programme Manager, Centre for Public Scrutiny