Why Our Leaders Need To Understand Data

Data isn't just about business, it has changed how people govern


April 26 2016 marked one of the saddest days in the history of the NHS in the UK, as for the first time there was a full strike from the service’s junior doctors (every doctor under consultant rank). The reason for this is because UK health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is attempting to impose a new contract on them to create a new '7 day NHS'.

Although there has been widespread support for the doctors across the UK, one of the key points undermining Jeremy Hunt's position is that he has little to no data to back up his new contract and the claims about why it is needed. For instance, his main argument is that he needs to prevent the '6,000 yearly deaths' caused by weekend staffing issues in the NHS, but the author of the study that he quotes has himself said that this data is wrong.

Even the day before these historical strikes, he was roundly criticized for not adopting a pilot scheme to try out the contract in some hospitals. Rather than gathering data on the impacts that it would have in the long run, he attempted to make a political statement.

The case for whether the new junior doctor's contract is a good or bad idea is one thing, but the ignorance of the data surrounding the issue is the most damning indictment of his leadership. In the same way, that analysis and modelling hasn't been done to at least attempt to see the impact in future, the minister’s reliance on false data is troubling. Data is everywhere in our society, and people do not want to have decisions made that will undoubtedly have a huge impact on their lives without data to back it up.

It is not simply in the decisions that our leaders make with data, but also the importance that people place on their own data. Governmental spying on people's personal data has done substantial damage to the relationship between citizens and governments across the world. Those who did the spying have been chastised and those who allowed it to happen have been equally impacted. It has even seen decades-old data treaties destroyed through citizen court action, like the SafeHarbor principles which were deemed illegal following Edward Snowden's revelations.

Both of these examples show that not only do country leaders need to keep on top of data, but that the consequences of not doing so can be severe. In fact, it could be argued that a lack of concentration on data has, in no small part, caused the current discontent in many western political systems.

Using data correctly has a significant positive impact too. It is not just used to reinforce arguments, rather it can even start to heal the rifts that have opened between governments and those who feel particularly disenfranchised. We saw how Barack Obama managed to use data to effectively create a personalized election campaign, and he subsequently managed to secure the 6th largest winning margin in US popular voting history.

Going back to the NHS, we have seen how those against the new contract being imposed by Jeremy Hunt have cleverly used data to show that women would be adversely, and disproportionately, affected by it. In fact, this could potentially stop the entire process in its tracks, as it has formed the basis of a legal challenge against the contract given the potential discrimination against women. It has created an irrefutable argument against the contract and has been picked up by millions of pro-NHS campaigners across the UK.

It shows that, with effective use of data, it is possible to create far more robust and achievable leadership techniques to keep the people they represent happy and the policies they create effective. We have seen through analysis that things like extended periods of austerity do little to increase public happiness and can have a big impact on public services, further damaging leadership viability in the future.

Not just understanding data, but basing policies and decisions on sound and wide ranging data sets makes for better leadership; we have seen the impact it can have when people ignore it.

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