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Government must get smarter about data

By Becca Bunce and Zara Todd, interim co-heads of influencing at ACEVO.

Data is often seen as dull and technical. Yet as innocuous as data may seem, what questions are asked and how data is used in decision-making can be critical to an organisation’s survival. This has never been more apparent than during COVID19.

Last week the UK government responded to the Public Accounts select Committee (PAC) recommendations following its review of government support to charities in response to Covid 19. The government’s response was a mixed bag. While there were some helpful agreements with four recommendations, one response raised serious questions about the government’s use of data when supporting civil society organisations.


As a result of the evidence received from across the sector the Public Accounts Select Committee made five recommendations. The fifth recommendation from the Committee stated:

5. The Department should, within three months, set out the triggers that would prompt it to consider further government financial support to the charity sector.

The government accepted the first four recommendations, which ACEVO welcomed. However, we were disappointed that the government rejected the fifth recommendation, responding with:

There is no single data source that can provide a definitive trigger for taking a decision on further financial support. The circumstances under which further support would be assessed must be based on a range of quantitative and qualitative sources, including intelligence on challenges facing critical sub-sectors.

Reducing the sector through limited data

This response offers an insight into the challenges faced by the social sector because of how the UK government solicits, understands and interprets data. Whilst the committee asked for “triggers” suggesting multiple inputs of data, the government response is about a single source of data. Everyone can accept that there is no one definitive form of data that serves the sector. This is an unnecessary reduction of the sector, and misdirection from the question of funding it appropriately.

Helpfully, the government does identify what is needed – a range of qualitative and quantitative data sources. The difficulty here is how that translates in practice. All too often data is used by government to reduce, flatten or homogenise our sector, missing the vibrant mixture of organisations which are joined together by a focus on mission but vary widely in how they deliver and fund their purpose.

For data to be useful it needs strategic collection and analysis, a clear understanding of assumptions and limitations in questions asked, how it is collected, and the nuance that is missing.

The government needs to recognise that a subsector is not only about what cause area a charity operates in, but also how it operates to fulfil its charitable objective. Two charities can operate in the same ‘subsector’ (health, homelessness, environment, etc) and have entirely different models of operating – whether differences in fundraising models, theory of change, and/or how and where work is delivered.

Without this nuance you can be comparing apples with oranges. For example, comparing charity A and B:

  • Charity A – Homelessness charity that predominantly provides services and has had relatively safe funding from trusts and foundations throughout the pandemic,

  • Charity B – Homelessness charity that focuses on policy work, and fundraises through in-person events that were cancelled due to the pandemic

Both could be seen in the same subsector – homelessness – but both have very different (and valid) approaches to ensuring change, and operate on different models. These differences in operational models (or business model) are recognised in the private sector, but not so readily understood by the government when discussing charities and others in the social sector.

This has a negative impact on both government and the sector. All too often data is being approached with the wrong assumptions about charities (and other organisations in the sector). This leads to the wrong questions being asked and either inappropriate or incomplete data being used. Often there is an over-reliance on quantitative data, without the necessary context of qualitative data. This is not only unhelpful for making decisions, but also creates a huge burden on charities – directing their time away from their mission to expend precious and limited resource on excessive data collection. Ultimately this makes the UK government’s spending less strategic, and society suffers.

What next?

There needs to be a smarter approach to data. A listening approach. One that looks at what data is necessary rather than asking unhelpful questions. There needs to be more space for hearing the sector in real time, trusting what we say, and responding. This is a more agile way of working, and one that is necessary as we face current and future threats. This requires more open approaches from government to engaging with the social sector and putting assumptions aside to work with the realities the sector is facing.

DCMS has indicated a willingness to engage on this issue with sector bodies in developing shared strategic priorities. But there is also an opportunity for the UK government to show more of this approach with the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. The CSR provides a chance for the government to listen to the social sector and respond in a strategic and nuanced way. It is crucial that the social sector gets the investment and tailored support needed to allow organisations to continue their vital work supporting communities and creating a more positive future.

Header photograph curtesy of UnSplash. 

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