Relationships first. Data second.

Emma McGowan
5 min readDec 2, 2020


A few months ago, Camden and Central Bedfordshire successfully pitched for funding from MHCLG’s C19 recovery fund to figure out how to overcome some of the data sharing challenges we saw in the first phase of the pandemic. Specifically between local authorities and their local voluntary and community sector (VCS). We pitched the idea with Central Bedfordshire and LOTI as we wanted to test ideas in different areas/contexts and see what could potentially scale to other places in the UK. MHCLG saw something in it and luckily we bagged some funding to do a discovery.

I went into this project feeling fairly bruised and exhausted from the first phase of Covid, but hopeful that we had a little bit of breathing space over the summer before we would be gearing up for a second phase in the autumn. It had been a brutal few months working non stop with partners to stand up new services and products to support our response, but I knew that data was going to be a stumbling block heading into the autumn.

And I really wanted us to use that time to reflect, learn and test new ways of working with our local VCS who were integral to getting residents the help they needed. I also knew our VCS had found it (understandably) somewhat frustrating working with us over the first phase of the pandemic. We were constantly receiving data on extremely vulnerable people from various sources and it felt counter intuitive not to be able to share this with our VCS colleagues. Unfortunately we were heavily restricted on what we could share and how we could use data from different health and Central Gov sources.

We made what seems to me like a reasonable request to compare known people to find out if the people we support are also on the vulnerable lists, the ones we’re already sharing details from between partners. But the council said no. The disappointing bit is there wasn’t really a conversation about it. VCS leader, Camden

What we learned

I so wanted there to be a magic wand going into the project. A product or a tool that would just make the hassle of data sharing easier. But I should know it’s never as easy as that (see exhausted brain reference earlier). Our research initially set out to find more effective ways to share vital data about vulnerable residents between partners. Yet, whilst there is clearly still room for improvement in the data sharing that is happening, we observed people becoming increasingly concerned about the data sharing that is not happening.

Incredible progress was made in the first months of the pandemic as both VCS orgs and local councils put data at the heart of the emergency response. However, we now need to plan for how to address the longer term impacts of COVID-19 on local communities. This requires spotting emerging patterns and supporting newly at risk residents about whom little may be known.

The research highlighted the importance of building mutual trust and understanding to unlock more valuable local data partnerships.

High level insights and things we wanted to test — see full report here

I’d like to be honest here — I don’t think we have been as open with data as we could be. And we do need to challenge ourselves (not just in Camden, its a thing I hear across the country) about what we can share and how we do that. Trust is low and the pandemic has only exacerbated this. We have an amazing VCS and we have brilliant digital and data capacity within the Council — and joining up to collectively develop and understand needs feels like where we need to invest our energy.

I’m really fearful for at-risk groups of residents out there about which we have almost no information. Right now, we’re simply guessing and reacting using our own instincts and numbers…together we must surely have different pieces of the puzzle to help us be smarter? Community centre manager, north Camden

Working together moving forwards

We collectively, with our respective VCS groups across the two boroughs came up with the concept of a ‘community insights project’. The research showed us that we needed to prioritise relationships first, data second. We needed an approach that would use the combined skills and knowledge of VCS and council teams to better understand local communities.

Essentially this means bringing together VCS staff and council data experts to explore how different types of quantitative and qualitative data can be used to deliver better support to residents during the pandemic and beyond. Combining their strengths, skills and capacity to address shared ‘blindspot’ issues. Planning, interpreting and responding as one.

We see community insights projects as a way to:

  • Forge new relationships and understanding between people who can turn data into action
  • Reframe the way data is used and exploring new ways to release it
  • Work through real projects together to swiftly create new insights and value

Now, to test it

We’re going to start testing this model or framework (which you can find here) to support our food aid work across the winter so will be reporting back via weeknotes to share what’s working and what we might need to tweak. As a council we have a lot of data on food insecurity; free school meal entitlement/take-up, data and stories from our COVID helpline but we also recognise there is a lot we don’t know about people experiencing food insecurity over the past 9 months.

Our VCS have been on the front line of this, delivering food and working with people who never even dreamed or having to visit a food bank before COVID. We need to marry that insight, with our data science expertise internally to really see how we might be able to support and work with communities differently over the coming months and years.

Whilst this wasn’t the magic wand I was looking for, this work has started a much needed conversation about new ways of working between councils and the VCS and what we can each bring to the table. If you’re planning to use the tools we’ve created we would love to hear from you as we’re thinking about how we iterate on the work further and create something of value for local authorities and the VCS.



Emma McGowan

Design, digital and policy in government. Part time masters student studying public value and the role of the state at IIPP. Solo parent. Proud mamma.