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Last week saw the culmination of our review into poverty in Wales, with the publication of the Auditor General’s report: Time for Change – Poverty in Wales.
Many of us are fortunate enough not to be affected by poverty, but as winter draws in and we find ourselves reaching for the thermostat, we’re all in some way feeling the pressure of the cost-of-living crisis. Whether struggling with our bills, cutting down on services we use, changing what food we buy to eat, or just the very real stresses that affect our mental health. While most of us will manage with these struggles, our report highlights that more and more people are sliding into poverty as the cost-of-living crisis bites.
The huge impact on people who are struggling day in day out with getting enough food or being able to use their heating were at the forefront of our minds in our Tackling Poverty in Wales Good Practice event held in North and South Wales.
Making better use of data is an important part of the solution to reduce poverty, whether that be by identifying those at risk of or in poverty, or in the sharing of data between services to provide a better targeted response to assisting people.
We explored these issues during one of the workshops at the event. We focussed on how we can use poverty data to achieve more impact, how to break out of siloed mindsets when working with data across council services and better benchmarking with other bodies. We asked participants to think about the barriers facing their organisations when using data, what solutions they found to dealing with these, and to share any examples of how they have overcome some of the obvious problems.
Participants came from various backgrounds, including Council services, third sector organisations and the NHS.
Some of the barriers explored included the ability to obtain and report data in real time and a lack of dedicated skilled staff who can interrogate and make best use of information. We heard of the difficulty analysing data, with some questioning the accuracy of data to make informed decisions, and some participants not knowing where to access data. Some mentioned the importance of ensuring there is an officer who can be accountable for poverty data across multiple service areas.
Analysing data can become quite an insular exercise, and it was good to see participants highlight the importance of the need to collaborate and network with other data specialists to overcome common issues. Some pointed out that data must be accurate but stressed the importance not to overfocus on accuracy at the expense of producing timely analysis, knowing that no data on poverty is going to be 100% accurate.
We know that, despite the lack of national indicators, Councils hold a wealth of data, so we asked some groups to explore how they can make better use of existing data. Silo working came up as a key barrier here, both within and outside organisations. Some overcame this by ensuring data is easy to digest, as you can have extensive datasets, that become useless if few people can understand them. Rightly so, consideration of data protection risks was mentioned as a key issue when sharing poverty data, although it was clear that organisations have worked with each other to overcome some of the barriers they faced in the early days of GDPR.
We heard how public bodies can use a more collective approach when using poverty data to help inform decision making. Some mentioned how useful it would be if data could be made available to employers, indicating the scale of in-work poverty in their organisation. Some officers called for more granular data that better captures the nuances around poverty and helps ensure data is more relevant to their teams, for example by in-depth analysis on the barriers that stop people accessing the services they need.
All these challenges resonated with the Audit Wales team, as we ourselves attempted to overcome these and other challenges in making better use of data on the course of our study and the production of our interactive data tool.
We came up against gaps in the data, difficulty accessing some datasets, and problems in acquiring data at multiple levels.
Hopefully our tool shines a light on many aspects of poverty bringing all the data together in one place, centred around what we described as the seven dimensions of poverty.
Our tool is one step on the path to using poverty data more effectively, but we recognise that using data is often a journey with no end.
We hope you find the tool valuable, please send your feedback to let us know how we can improve our data tools in future.
View our Poverty in Wales data tool [opens in new window].
Matt Brushett is a Senior Auditor at Audit Wales. Matt has worked for Audit Wales since 2013, undertaking several roles in Performance Audit across Health and Central Government, before moving to the Local Government team as a Senior Auditor in 2018. Matt has led on the production of several data tools for national studies including ‘Front door to social care’, ‘Rough Sleeping in Wales’ and ‘Regenerating Town Centres in Wales’. As well as working on national studies for local government, he also undertakes local audit work with National Park and Fire and Rescue Authorities.