Applications > Business Applications

DfT speeds ahead on management information

Charlotte Jee Published 25 November 2013

The Department for Transport may provide a lesson in how to unlock government-wide value from data

 

We've all heard the old adage 'knowledge is power', but it seems the government has finally got the memo.

The Cabinet Office is trying to work out how to make sense of the vast amount of management information within government, and has issued reports and releases describing its plans. The potential prize of improving the quality of information to ministers and senior civil servants is better decision-making, more efficiency and vast savings.

However, for an example of best practice, those working at the centre could look a little closer to home. The Department for Transport (Dft) has been quietly improving its management information (MI) for the last four years, and has created a dashboard that uses automated data to provide a snapshot across the entire department.

The MI dashboard provides a picture across the department of information on finance, HR, ongoing programmes and projects and their associated risks. It not only applies to the central HQ, but also to executive agencies such as the Highways Agency or Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and associated companies, for example the train operators.

One version of the truth

Leslie Gilbert, senior business partner and senior responsible owner of the MI programme, explains, "Around about 2009 the department felt that it was important that we improved the level of management information. There were a number of drivers, particularly financial and management improvement, cost savings, back office consolidation, being able to report things once rather than many times and particularly getting accuracy of data improved so that you have 'one version of the truth'."

There are a number of levels to the dashboard, which can be used at a local level by call centre managers or divisional managers, then at a directorate or group level, and then finally for external reporting.

Gilbert explains that external reporting "is the numerous requests for data, particularly from the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. We regularly report to Treasury every month with finance data and so on. And trying to get all of that into an automated place was what we were trying to do."

Ed Evetts, head of the MI programme, adds, "Fundamentally the benefits that we've got from this exercise are that for the first time the department has this warehouse of data which sits on top of all of its systems and takes business information into one place which means that we can use that many times in different ways but it's actually got the same source."

Sarah Baskerville, head of MI systems, explains, "It looks very familiar because the front-end of it is Excel. So in terms of training, well you know how to use MS Office. And the back-end is where the big system sits. So everyone's very comfortable navigating through Excel and using that functionality."

Recognition

Unsurprisingly perhaps, others are starting to follow the department's MI programme with interest. The team has received interest from the Home Office, the Department for Work & Pensions, HM Revenue & Customs, Transport for London, the Ministry of Justice and the British Council. They have held a meeting with Birmingham City Council and have plans to meet Singapore's Ministry of Finance in the near future.

Their work was also recognised recently by the Government Finance Profession (GFP), an HM Treasury initiative that works to embed professional finance culture across government. The team won GFP's 2013 'Innovation in Government' award in recognition of their work.

Baskerville says the award acknowledges "there is no quick fix to MI. We've had a dedicated team, dedicated resources and support from the senior management. None of this is possible unless you get support from senior management and business partners. They've been involved in all aspects of the design and testing.

"We have an agile approach to how we do development and it has been a hard slog, it hasn't been easy. I think the biggest challenge is not the building part- it's addressing the business process and the culture change required to get these benefits."

Gilbert adds, "One of the applications we built, which I think is another reason why we won the award, is because we have a quarterly dataset that the Cabinet Office introduced about a year ago and we realised as that doing this on an automated basis is of advantage to us. And so we have actually automated 90% of the quarterly dataset. So that means that we don't have the overhead of data collection, spreadsheets and all of that stuff. In fact GDS [the Government Digital Service] came along and used it as an opportunity to see if they could mine the data.

Baskerville says, "What I've found with MI- it's actually added real value, where people have spent days if not weeks trying to number crunch and pull out a figure, you don't need to do that now. They actually add value by being able to analyse information that's there and have faith that the information is accurate and delivered in a timely manner. It adds a lot more value to the job."

However, Evetts concedes "it puts the underpinning business processes into stark relief because there's no hiding place if you're trying to use data from a number of different systems. It has got to be accurate. The way that you characterise the information, how quickly it's updated, how quickly people move positions, if you haven't got it right your best plans just won't happen."

History

The challenge that the team is scaling is thrown into sharp relief when Gilbert explains that the civil service has not had a tradition of having regular access to its own data.

He says, "They [civil servants] are very good at managing data, but they've not had any tradition of having access to regular information. And I think I'm right in saying a lot of departments are similar. So when they get requests for performance data, it's been quite a task to carry it out. It's been a very ineffective and inefficient process. And I think that's where this has gained a huge amount of benefit because it removes the necessity to have a special exercise whenever these requests come in."

"There's just no culture of it. There's not been a background in this department of people thinking that they have access to that information so it's almost a surprise to them that the information exists now."

Previously, he adds, data was held in pockets around the organisation and was not available for people to reuse. Hence civil servants used to get asked the same question many times by different people.

Gilbert says, "The ability for the department to report in its entirety- the entire central department plus all the different associated bodies- was almost negligible before. We had the ability to say here is DfT, here is DVLA, but not to have the entirety of the picture."

Baskerville says, "Now there are processes in place to have monthly data collection not just of finance and HR but all the stuff that adds value like risk, headcount, digital transactions. That comes in on a monthly basis. I'm not saying it's painless but then at the centre we can see across the entire body and that information is there for senior management and executives to make informed decisions."

Evetts warns that there is plenty of work still to be done. He says, "It's not easy going and there's still a lot to do. It's a challenge to change cultural habits and there's still plenty we can do to engage more people to use the system."

The next stage

Gilbert says that the team has basically finished covering the basic areas of work and information that the department requires.

The next stage, he says, is about using data to provide more analytical understanding of the organisation, and trying to get more data from external sources.

He says, "The department is very active in wanting to understand industries that it serves. So an area we could look at is to think more creatively about what we need from the industries we serve, like the airlines, the railways, freight, which would allow us to provide a broader set of business information for people to use. So those are the two areas I'd like to focus on but there's plenty of work around embedding what we've already got as well."

Baskerville would like to see the dashboard become more accessible for people, for example those using smartphones and tablets.

She says it may take some years, but eventually she would like to people who are using their DfT-issued tablet or smartphone to be able to use MI analytics on the go.

She adds, "People go out and visit agencies and we are adapting to new ways of working such as remote working so you need to make sure that's accessible wherever you are. There's a few things that need to happen before that but it's part of our longer-term strategy."

Evetts says that MI has the potential to offer "a much more intelligent conversation about the department."

For example, he says, "Regarding reporting to HM Treasury, you can easily see a situation where the Treasury has the ability to access data from us and ask about it, so we can explain where we are on finances much quicker. So when need to get into conversations about whether we can do more with less, explaining what programmes are about, we have the right information at our fingertips."

"You're a bit more aware as an organisation of your tolerances and the impact of taking different decisions. So if the Treasury said we want 10% off this, then you have a much better understanding. Rather than just taking 10% off everything, you have much more informed decision making."

Baskerville highlights another advantage to the programme: that it was led by civil servants.

She says, "We've got some developer resource in but as we've gone along, we've developed skills internally and we've got a team of developers who can take this forward on an ongoing basis. The project has been managed and defined by civil servants and permanent staff. Slowly, we are improving our skills."

Related articles:

Whitehall takes steps to improve its management information







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