Valuing data in Community Planning – building capacity in Northern Ireland

April 2, 2019

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by Dr Gavan Rafferty, Lecturer in Spatial Planning and Development, Ulster University

Councils use, and generate, a myriad of data these days.  A ‘wise council’ is one that embraces a data-driven local government approach and values the role of data in measuring performance. Data and evidence are also crucial for both the design and delivery of public services. In Northern Ireland, like elsewhere across the UK and Ireland, and beyond, councils are adapting to new outcomes-based performance frameworks. With this comes an increasing value placed on data for tracking and measuring performance towards improving wellbeing outcomes.

In Northern Ireland, Community Planning represents a new integrative model of collaborative working to co-design, co-deliver and co-monitor public services for enhancing social, economic and environmental well-being. However, the acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data can be challenging for many council officers and elected members at times. And, as Carnegie UK Trust acknowledges, through its Embedding Wellbeing in Northern Ireland project, there are issues with the availability and accessibility of appropriate data at a local level.

Against this backdrop, Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), supported by the Carnegie UK Trust, hosted a training workshop for Northern Ireland’s elected members in relation to ‘understanding the role of data and evidence in community planning’ last month (February 2019). The workshop aimed to build a shared understanding amongst elected members (and other attendees) on the use of data and evidence to inform community planning. I was delighted to be asked to facilitate – and co-design – this valuable training session for elected members. Being from Ulster University’s Belfast School of Architecture and the Built Environment, I have a research interest in community planning and its relationship with spatial planning – both requiring careful consideration of data and grounded in evidence-based policy-making.

In setting the context at the workshop, I shared my research insights into the value of community planning and place-based thinking/working for managing resources that can improve service delivery and wellbeing outcomes.  Emphasising the differences between opinion-based policy-making and evidence-based policy-making to elected members, we discussed how the value of adopting an evidence-based approach helps policy-makers and service providers reach better decisions and, ultimately, achieve better co-designed outcomes. Drawing from NESTA and LGA’s Wise Council report, I outlined examples of how councils are currently using data and for what purposes, e.g. for outcomes-based performance management, etc.

A key learning outcome from the training workshop was to increase elected members’ confidence and competence in finding and using data to support community planning. Sandra Tate, from Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), introduced elected members to Northern Ireland’s Neighbourhood Information Service (NINIS), an online resource that provides interactive statistical data across different geographical scales and thematic content. With many community planning partners engaging with NINIS’ various datasets to inform public service design decisions, Sandra demonstrated how NINIS can be a valuable resource for elected members to build up a more comprehensive evidence base to engage with community planning in their council. Claire Short, a NISRA statistician based in Belfast City Council, illustrated the use of NINIS for informing the Belfast Agenda (the city’s Community Plan) and the role of data and evidence shaping the Council’s Age Friendly work.

Having established data sources and application in practice, elected members were asked to consider an educational scenario to examine the evidence base that can be used to develop solutions that demonstrate impact. Many elected members identified the need to collate relevant data from NINIS’s Children, Education and Skills theme. Discussions revealed additional datasets of interest, e.g. on people and places, such as household data and deprivation, that could offer new thinking on how to work together with other (statutory/non-statutory) partners to achieve greater collaborative gain. In thinking about the range of available evidence, elected members commented on how the community planning model now operating provides a framework for developing better solutions that could demonstrate impact and achieve better outcomes.

In drawing the workshop to a close, Councillor Brendan Gallagher and Alan Mitchell (council statistician), from Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, shared their experience of developing and conducting a residents’ survey to inform community planning. The experience revealed how such bespoke research generates intelligence on a range of issues, including council performance and resident wellbeing, developing a robust evidence base to allocate resources and interventions that offer greater impact.

The workshop underscored the significant role that place (‘the local’) has on people experiencing positive or negative social, economic and environmental wellbeing. Elected member feedback revealed the value of hosting this training event, particularly given the emphasis now on obtaining, using and reflecting on evidence and data. For those elected members in attendance, they left appreciating how – and where – to access relevant community planning data to both inform the design of public services and to track performance outcomes.