A Life in Data & Reporting: stories work, numbers don't!
I remember the defining moment in my life as a Social Care Reporting Geek. I’d been providing analysis for a Local Authority for a few years at this point, diligently producing monthly reports full of numbers, lovingly graphed and colour coded, and I presented them with love each month to the managers of our social work teams.
In this particular month’s presentation, after my bit, there was a second slot around performance from a consultant. He didn’t show a single graph or table. Instead he showed an animation, with boxes showing different parts of the process from entry to exit, and dots bouncing around the boxes to represent children. I’d known it was coming, I’d provided the data for the box. What I wasn’t prepared for was the reaction from the managers.
“It’s funny how some children go through the process quite quickly,” one manager said, to murmurs of agreement, “whereas others seem really slow.”
Yes, I thought. Only 73% of assessments are done on time, the rest are slower. It’s on page 13 of my report.
“What strikes me,” said another, “Is how many children are leaving the process, and then in a relatively short period are coming back in through the front door.”
At this point I was getting grumpy. The 27% re-referral rate was in size 28 font on page four of the report, and colour coded red to show how much of an issue it was. Thankfully after another few minutes my silent seething had turned into quiet introspection and I came to the conclusion that defined how I approached reports from that moment onwards. It’s such an important conclusion that it gets its own paragraph, in bold, and a larger font.
People don’t respond to numbers, they respond to stories.
Okay so the bouncing balls and boxes may have been slightly gimmicky, but for the first time the statistics they’d learnt to endure were more than just numbers. They could picture the children behind the numbers. It wasn’t just a re-referral rate, it was a group of children who we’d said we’d help and who almost immediately needed to come back for more help. The important and clever people in the authority obviously caught the same vision, and before long we had a newer approach to reporting. Meetings were held with each team where workers were asked “What do you care about and what would help you to tell that story?” and dashboards were produced that meant teams could readily access the information that they really cared about, in helpful, visual formats that helped to form part of the narrative. Where targets were necessary, for example to reduce the numbers of children in residential care, it wasn’t just the numbers we provided, it was also the estimated amount of money saved and the number of children who were being well supported in foster care so that residential care wasn’t used as often.
The fact is, even for maths nerds like me, the human brain doesn’t cope with numbers. There’s evidence to suggest that we perceive things logarithmically rather than linearly, which essentially means that just talking about how a number has increased or dropped by a couple of percentage is unlikely to inspire, but make your statistics part of a bigger story and the language centres of our brain get more excited.
Author: David Wilson, Children’s Product Analyst and Management Information Lead, Liquidlogic