The Challenge Lab: Collaborative problem solving in action

Away from the main stage at the Government Data Summit, a group of civil servants and public sector specialists were invited to participate in the first ever Challenge Lab. As the name suggests, it was a place of experimentation and co-creation! 

Over the course of the morning, representatives from the ONS, MOJ, North Sea Transition Authority, Companies House and the AI Fellowship, hosted individual discussion tables where they shared some of the data challenges they were encountering in their own teams. These ranged from fundamental problems around culture, ethics and trust, to the technical dilemmas like how to deliver streamlined access to integrated data. 

Attendees were given the chance to rotate around the room, listening and contributing suggestions to the problems at hand. Suffice to say, they did not shy away. As one passer-by commented, the room was a "hive of activity” as attendees from all over the world sat shoulder-to-shoulder; inputting ideas and, dare we say, putting forward some potential solutions. 

It felt like the perfect vantage to observe collaborative problem solving in action. Amid the excitable exchanging of ideas, these were some of the key themes that emerged. 

Selling the vision

Data is an art, not just a science. Turning ideas into a viable business case is imperative for data projects to move forward, but getting buy-in from relevant parties on a data vision is not always as straightforward as it seems. 

Challenge owners expressed a desire to better understand what the return on investment would be when tackling the individual aspects of their project, and how to bring that into the early stages of planning from the get-go. 

Ideas discussed involved figuring out how to go out to market, understanding what the art of the possible is and making sure you know who to speak to internally and externally. Responses highlighted that working out how best to get people to care about what you do means putting yourself in their shoes and figuring out how it helps them do their job. 

In data we trust 

Another hot topic was trust. Specifically, how to build a culture where data can be used in new ways. It was clear that a common pain point for government data teams in the room - and across the public sector - is getting risk-averse people to be more open-minded on data. Attendees wanted to know how to navigate bureaucracy in a public sector organisation when you are trying to move data across boundaries. 

Time and again, conversations circled back to the importance of championing customer uses. The tighter the grip data teams have on understanding the end value of the data and its application, the better chance they have of embedding a good data culture. 

Pitch perfect

By talking through the intricacies of their data dilemmas to a group of strangers, challenge owners were also given an opportunity to perfect their ‘pitch’. Hearing where the main concerns and queries were, fielding questions related to the challenge and understanding how best to articulate their aims was a crash course in pitching to future stakeholders or senior leaders. 

When you are too close to a problem it can be easy to overlook or lose sight of the priority areas. For the challenge owners in the room, it was a chance to hit the refresh button and assess the problem with fresh eyes. 

Clubbing together 

By far, the biggest theme of the morning was an overwhelming desire for more cross-departmental collaboration, with one challenge owner going so far as to suggest that those in the room should form a club to tackle their collective data challenges as a unit. 

“It was fascinating to hear about some of the projects other government departments were working on and it became clear that we are all facing similar sorts of challenges. That sense of community, understanding that we're not doing everything in isolation, was really rewarding,” Matt Brown, Head of Health & Other Gov. Data Acquisition at ONS.

"The feedback we got from the experts in the room was so valuable," said Jamie Corless, Senior Business Analyst at NSTA. “I found the experience really enjoyable and interesting. It's the first time I've ever done anything like that so it was an entirely new experience and one I'd definitely do again."

It was also clear from the conversations in the room that suppliers’  understand the data challenges government department’s are facing. They came with the right content and spoke to civil servants about their challenges in meaningful ways. 

As civil servants continue to grapple with a lot of the same challenges as one another, providing an opportunity and a space to collaborate will continue to be a powerful catalyst for further innovation in government. 

With that in mind, we look forward to seeing what's in store at our upcoming Challenge Lab in November. We promise it will be even bigger and better than before! 

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