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Public Sector organisations aren’t ready to unleash the power of data

28 March 2022

News and media


Image of woman working on the floor with cat

By Vindhya Weeratunga, Miriam Glennie, Massimiliano Tani and Fiona Buick

In 2021, ANZSOG announced it would support a research project into the future of flexible work in public services in partnership with the ACT Public Service (ACTPS) and with commissioned input from the University of New South Wales’s Public Service Research Group (PRSG) based in Canberra, to examine the ACTPS’s Future of Work strategy.

The research project, led by Fiona Buick, is examining the impact of flexible working on the productivity, wellbeing and effectiveness of ACTPS workers and the factors that can lead to more effective flexible working including the built environment, and managerial and organisational support.

How public services use flexible work will be a key issue as they adapt to a post-pandemic world and this research project was chosen as one which will have relevance to other jurisdictions in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

The research team has begun gathering evidence about how ACT public servants are interacting and engaging with technology and collaborating with each other across multiple locations, as part of the process of examining the changing nature of work, and its impact on physical workforces.

One of the first things that the research team has identified is the difficulty of accessing the datasets held by public services to undertake the research. This has prompted the article below, which first appeared in the Mandarin, outlining some of the barriers to public services using their own data to solve problems and how they can be overcome.

Now, more than ever, data is essential for planning the future of work. The pandemic upended traditional ways of working, with employees now having completely different expectations of their employers, particularly around flexible working.

But what does the future of work look like and how should agencies plan for it? As hybrid working becomes embedded, understanding employees’ use of technology and patterns of building access could help agencies develop a picture of both current flexible working practices and future requirements.

Public sector organisations have bucketloads of data on all these things, but are they ready to use it?

A team at UNSW Canberra is carrying out cutting-edge data analytics research on flexible working with the ACT Public Service (ACTPS). This research is funded by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

The research planned to analyse Microsoft 365 analytics and building use data for activity-based-working to identify how employees undertake activities specific to their location. For example, when do they use areas set aside for quiet working, use breakout rooms for collaboration and creative tasks, and use booths for a quick chat with a colleague.

It was expected that existing metadata could be analysed to show who was working in which workspace, how long they spent there, and whether certain employees were using the space more. We wanted to identify the usage of different groups of employees, such as women, employees with caring responsibilities, employees with disability and older employees.

However, the project hit a roadblock. The data exists but cannot be easily used to answer complex questions about flexible working, or produce insights about planning for flexible, remote and hybrid work practices.

Here are some of the problems encountered and our recommendations to overcome them.

Problem 1: Data silos

When data is owned and stored in silos it can’t easily be used or shared between agencies. In fact, different sub-units might not even know what data exists in other units. We recommend that agencies actively plan to link datasets. This enables a holistic picture of how different factors are connected; e.g., how public sector employees are using technology and how that is impacting their flexible working.

We also recommend that agencies develop and share a ‘data catalogue’ to make datasets discoverable, so that all agencies know what can be found and where.

Problem 2: Most data concerns individuals

This means nobody knows what happens at the team level, where several problems can arise and can be solved. We recommend that agencies collect teams-related data.

Problem 3: Data-related activity is often outsourced

This prevents public sector organisations from actually using the data it collects without entering into new and expensive commercial arrangements.

We recommend agencies develop in-house HR analytics capability. This will: (1) equip public sector organisations with the capability to realise the potential of data; (2) use the data for internal evaluation purposes and decision-making; and, ultimately, (3) save a lot of money!

The bottom line is that the public sector needs to make its databanks actionable (ready to use). In 2015, an in-house study commissioned by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet found that data is under-utilised in the APS. Seven years down the road, our project finds that this is not isolated to the APS and is in fact occurring across other public sector organisations.

It’s time for public sector organisations to unleash the power of their data and be ahead of the game in the future of work!

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