This annual roundup is like no other. The last twelve months have been extremely challenging for communities across Wales and for the organisations (both public and private) that serve them. Families have lost loved ones, services have been put under pressure, and the economy has been strained. However, amidst these difficulties there are reasons for optimism. Services continue to be delivered, the rollout of the vaccination programme is progressing at pace, most children are returning to school, and deaths and case numbers are declining. None of this would be possible without the dedication and professionalism of our public, private, and third sector colleagues.
Working from home
On 16 March 2020 we made the decision to work from home. Like most organisations, we thought this arrangement might last a few months. Clearly this turned out not to be the case.
We were able to adapt to this arrangement very quickly due to our flexible IT infrastructure; all staff have laptops, we use cloud storage, and made the move to Microsoft Teams over the winter of 2019/20.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that working from home has been without its challenges. Clearly, a lack of social interaction was a concern for the well-being of staff and for the running of the organisation. To mitigate, we asked line managers to engage with staff regularly via video chat, we hold more frequent management meetings, and we encourage regular and flexible use of annual leave.
A particular challenge faced was the recruitment of a Statistician and Senior Statistician in September. We undertook this recruitment and onboarded the successful candidates (Hayley Randall and Jonathan Owens) entirely virtually.
As a result of this experience we are committed to working more flexibly. Going forward, this will open up exciting opportunities around how we work, where we work, and what we can deliver.
COVID-19 response - existing data
The pandemic has made statistics mainstream; every day we read of case numbers, transmission rates, death rates, the R number and so on. It is likely that policymakers, journalists, and the public have consumed more statistics in the last year than at any other time in recent history. Specifically, we have noted a significant increase in demand for real-time data that allows users to understand the here and now, and act on it.
To meet this demand and ensure the COVID-19 outputs we produce are as useful as possible, we spent a great deal of time understanding what data are available, their strengths and limitations, and how timely they are.
Off the back of this work, we produced a series of dashboards that chart the number of cases of, tests for, and vaccines against coronavirus, the number of deaths related to the pandemic, and the impact the pandemic has had on the economy.
Furthermore, we produced ad-hoc reports and briefings for partners that drew on less well-known data sources. For instance, we used Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports to understand how different spaces were used during the lockdowns in Wales.
We continue to work closely with the wider public sector in Wales to ensure that the right data are available to the right organisations at the right time. Data sharing was, and remains, critical to linking up understanding of, and response to, the pandemic. The increased cooperation that has occurred over the last year is extremely positive and has been essential to delivering services across Wales.
Given the current spotlight on data and statistics, we have an opportunity to cement these data sharing successes and to carry forward good practice. We will work with local government and the wider public and third sectors to support this work into 2021/22.
COVID-19 response - data collection
Given the novelty of some of the policy responses to the pandemic, often there were no existing data to call upon. As such, we designed and ran a series of data collections over the last year. These can be broken down into education, economic, and enforcement collections.
Our education-related collections included gathering data on the number of children using education hubs during the first lockdown, Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility and uptake, and the numbers of electively home-educated children.
Our economy-related collections included working with local authorities to record the roll-out of small business grants and to understand the likely financial impact of the pandemic.
Our enforcement-related collection recorded enforcement activity undertaken to uphold legal instruments related to the pandemic.
We are proud of the speed with which we were able to undertake these important collections and are in a strong position to build on this success into 2021/22.
COVID response – engagement
The pandemic has highlighted the need for clear and regular engagement and, at the same time, has reduced our ability to do so face-to-face. It is not all bad news, though! Whereas we may previously have visited partner(s), incurring travel time and costs, during the pandemic we have instead met over a series of video calls. This has allowed us to dedicate more focused time to partners and projects, driving up productivity and engagement in the process.
Furthermore, an important part of our engagement has always been to seek and listen to their insights to provide context to the data. Without being able to visit, input from partners ‘on the ground’ has become increasingly important in painting a picture of what is happening in local communities. Given that the impact of the pandemic has not been evenly distributed across Wales, it’s no surprise that we are seeing more and more ‘oddities’ in the data we work with. Local partners have been, and continue to be, invaluable in unpicking these nuances.
For example, through our work with the Regional Skills Partnerships, we have been able to gain a much better understanding of the labour market and Claimant Count in Wales by drilling down on areas which appear to be holding up relatively well in the face of rising unemployment.
As we move out of the pandemic we must continue to build on these relationships, as local insight must be at the centre of recovery planning and the ‘new normal’.
COVID-19 response – dissemination
Distilling meaning from information has never been easy but has, at times over the last year, been particularly difficult. To ensure that messages cut through the noise, clarity has become more important than ever. To this end, we have invested heavily in new technology that allows us to simplify and target our outputs. Specifically, we have dramatically ramped up our use of PowerBI. This dissemination tool allows us to create outputs that are interactive, streamlined, and user-friendly.
Additionally, we have produced outputs in Microsoft Sway. This tool allows us to embed outputs from other software packages, such as Excel and PowerBI, turning a traditional report into an interactive experience.
Furthermore, we are currently testing the compatibility of R and Python coding languages with PowerBI to create bespoke outputs. This exciting work will allow us to have complete control over the functionality and feel of future outputs.
Business as usual activity
Alongside our pandemic response, we also delivered our core business offerings.
We undertook our regular data collections, developed bespoke websites, data portals and dashboards, as well as delivering a number of quantitative and qualitative (evaluation) reports.
Furthermore, we are developing an exciting training offering to be rolled out in early 2021/22; survey design and focus group training, as well as summary statistics and presenting data guides.
Looking ahead, we are working actively to build upon the increased interest in statistics and data generated during the pandemic, to strengthen relationships with partners, and to fortify the data culture that is emerging across local government in Wales. More details will be published soon via our strategic plan. Watch this space!
If you have any questions or queries we would love to hear from you.
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