Cross-sector strategy needed to plug 'data chasm'

A report calls for the government to set up a working group with the objective of developing a National Social Sector Data Strategy

Charity leaders have backed a call for a cross-sector strategy to plug a “data chasm” that is leaving some in the sector “operating in the dark”.

A new report for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, a two-year initiative that was launched in December to examine how the potential of civil society can be unlocked across the UK, has drawn attention to what it says are major holes in official data about the sector.

The report, titled Better Data, Bigger Impact: A Review of Social Sector Data, urges the Treasury, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Office for National Statistics and regulators to collaborate with the sector to improve data as part of the National Data Strategy.

The commission said it had raised concerns that decision-makers in government and those at the top of charities were often operating in the dark when it came to a sector employing almost a million people.

The new report, produced by the research charity Pro Bono Economics, calls attention to how much of civil society data is stuck in unreadable formats.

It highlights how data routinely collected on private sector organisations by the ONS, which was used effectively to inform the government’s furlough scheme, is lacking in the sector.

It suggests that public sector data reviews such as the Bean Review and the Atkinson Review should be used as precedents the sector can learn from.

Specifically, the report recommends that the DCMS take the lead in setting up a cross-sector working group with the objective of developing a National Social Sector Data Strategy.

The commission has also made five recommendations to improve data use that include modernising the collection of data and making better use of existing administrative and survey data.

In addition, it calls for the production of social economy satellite accounts so that the ONS releases regular statistics about the social sector’s contribution to the economy which are comparable to the private sector.

Anoushka Kenley, research and policy director at Pro Bono Economics, said: “There is a chasm between the information we have on businesses and the information we have on charities right now.

“The public funds charities to deliver crucial contracts such as adoption services and to provide social and mental health care, yet up-to-date data doesn’t exist on how much government funding the sector receives.

“Tens of millions of people volunteer each year, yet we can’t calculate with any accuracy whether more people volunteer for homelessness charities or food banks.

“The upheaval of the pandemic brought into focus a serious data gap that has long dogged the sector and created a blind spot for the government.

“Filling this data gap can be done and would go a long way to freeing the social sector to deliver even more impact than it already does.”

The five solutions proposed by the commission have been backed by sector leaders, including the chief executives of the data charity 360Giving and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Tania Cohen, chief executive of 360Giving, said: “We need more and better-quality data to inform strategy, policy and practice in order to maximise the impact for communities and make the best use of funds available."

The commission published an earlier paper in April this year that warned “substantial gaps” in data were negatively affecting the sector’s ability to function.

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