Is the government sending mixed messages on data?

By Sarah Hedley 28 June 2011

The government wants charities to collect data to show what they’re achieving. Or does it? A recent conversation with a charity has made me wonder.

This charity, which works with homeless people, receives a large chunk of its funding through Supporting People—a housing-related funding stream from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). In the past the charity has been required to complete a Quality Assessment Framework, which includes reporting data on key outputs and outcomes the charity had achieved. The Framework is something we cite in our manifesto for social impact as an example of the type of standardised evaluation arrangements we’d like to see more of.

The charity has found this Framework useful too. As well as providing DCLG with evidence of the effectiveness of the programme, it has given the charity a reason to collect data that has been useful internally—to demonstrate the value of what it is doing, and to help it adapt and improve its services.

However, earlier this year, DCLG announced that it would no longer be collecting data from Supporting People. According to its website, ‘the Department wishes to reduce the time-consuming and expensive burden of numerous data reporting requirements imposed on local authorities [which then commission services locally] by central government’. As a result, the requirement to complete the Framework has been removed.

This came as a surprise to me. In the last year, there have been countless news stories about outcomes-driven contracts—from social impact bonds to payment by results arrangements—which require charities to use data to demonstrate the difference they’ve made. We’ve also seen David Cameron announce plans to measure national wellbeing and make a commitment to open data. All these things require charities to get a grip on good monitoring and evaluation.

So what’s going on?

I’m sure that DCLG hopes that the organisations funded through Supporting People will continue collecting data for their own purposes. But its decision to remove data collection makes me wonder how well government understands its role motivating the collection of this information in the first place.

Take another example: the Minimum Data Sets (MDS) used by the palliative care sector. These annual questionnaires ask hospices to provide detailed outputs data across a range of their services, from inpatient units to community care.

Completing the MDS is entirely voluntary, yet the response rate is impressive—around 83% of independent hospices fill them out every year. And why? At least part of the explanation is that the NHS and health care commissioners have got firmly behind the MDS and strongly encourage their funded organisations to complete them.

Cutting red tape is an admirable aim and, at NPC, we’ve written about the importance of not overburdening charities with disproportionate reporting. But government needs to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Scrapping the requirement to collect data and report on outcomes sends out some very mixed messages.