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Data governance – now more than ever

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It’s fair to say our lives have been turned upside down in many respects, courtesy of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown measures instituted across New Zealand. Norms across a host of fronts are being tested, at the very least, and made all but obsolete, at worst.

A sentiment associated with the current times, often repeated (even by our Prime Minister herself), is ‘uncertainty’. 

As our situation is being driven by an essentially invisible entity, whose behaviour is still something of a mystery, we’re all forging ahead somewhat in the dark and hoping our decisions and actions in response are the best for the long run.

The most effective way to mitigate uncertainty is to be informed. With knowledge, we can act decisively, confident that our choices are the best under the circumstances. Knowledge manifests from information, and information, especially in our modern world, manifests from data.

Government agencies across New Zealand, including my own at Stats NZ, are taking a hard look at what data they have, what they need, and what could be developed quickly to help the country understand and deal with this unprecedented set of circumstances.

But in the hurry to develop and use that data, it’s critical that we don’t rush past the need to properly govern it. If we do, we risk plenty: poor results, improper use, further marginalising those already marginalised, and potentially worsening rather than improving our situation.

However, there is a long list of benefits that arise if we govern data well.

The benefit I often promote is accountability. When everyone in an organisation who handles or otherwise engages with data, understands that it’s a valuable asset and accepts a proper level of personal responsibility, then they understand the need to act appropriately with data, not only for the good of themselves or their organisation, but also for the good of the wider world. In this regard, data governance is a powerful enabler of stewardship or kaitiakitanga.

Accountability is a great feature of data governance, but in the current environment of uncertainty, a more obviously practical benefit might be better to consider: assurance. 

Data governance can be described as a set of norms –  the rules and accepted practice that define how we should engage with data in every respect, be it operational, strategic, or even political.  

Importantly, these norms have been agreed and institutionalised, whether through a formal process or via informal understanding, as the way we do things and how we prefer to act regarding our data assets. In that sense, and by helping us more clearly consider our data, they help define who we are as an organisation.

And the beauty of data governance norms is simply that they are there, ready to be put to use when needed, answering questions, providing direction.  The bane of uncertainty and indecision.  A provider of assurance.

When used properly, data governance norms can be the proverbial calm in the storm.

What better time to leverage this source of assurance than when faced, as we are now, with an unfamiliar present and an uncertain future? What better time to rely on our data - which if properly governed will consistently provide us an assurance of its validity - to inform us, to equip us with the knowledge to make good decisions? 

It seems to me we need that now, more than ever.


Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash



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