Survey: centre of government should win new data powers, say UK civil servants

By on 09/02/2021
Your new mission: UK civil servants are keen to see the Government Digital Service and other central bodies act to improve data use across government. Credit: Cabinet Office/Flickr

Most UK civil servants want to see the centre of government win new powers to drive departments’ progress on the use of data, outnumbering those opposed by three to one, according to new research.

In an online survey about how government could realise the potential of data, civil servants identified a number of priorities including stronger leadership, more investment in digital and data workforces, and the introduction of cross-government policies such as mandatory data standards and a single national ID system.

The research found a strong demand for better data systems and capabilities across the workforce. When asked how important these are to improving public services and staff tools, some 63% replied “absolutely essential” and a further 30% “very important”. Officials were particularly keen to use data in evidence-based policymaking, impact assessments, and service reforms to target user needs and simplify access.

Questions on how well respondents’ employers use data revealed a mixed picture. About 40% said their organisations have largely built the systems required for good data management, but there was a long tail of slow movers – with about the same proportion saying their employer hasn’t got past early development work. Asked how their organisations could best hasten progress, civil servants asked first for “strong and visible leadership” and the development of data strategies.

Training and development

The survey results also show that civil servants want to see more investment in the Digital, Data and Technology (DDAT) workforce. Asked their views of a range of potential actions by the centre of government, respondents showed most support for more training for DDAT staff – with 80% saying it could speed progress – while nearly 60% supported the introduction of funding and salary flexibilities to recruit more senior DDAT specialists.

Aspects of the government’s National Data Strategy received strong support – including the creation of an integrated data platform and mandatory data standards. That said, officials also called for legislative changes to ease data sharing, with over 70% of senior civil servants saying they could hasten progress. Other government policies attracted less enthusiasm: the appointment of a central DDAT leader proved least popular. Yet even here, 42% of respondents thought it would be a helpful move, while only 11% thought it might be problematic.

The UK’s central data leaders are likely to be pleased by both civil servants’ enthusiasm for making better use of data, and their support for stronger central leadership and leverage. Historically some leaders in the delivery-focused ‘line’ departments have resisted the Government Digital Service’s efforts to introduce cross-government policies and requirements, but it appears that on data there is widespread support for the centre to take a stronger line.

The survey, which was carried out by Global Government Forum for IT services provider NTT DATA UK late last year, attracted 346 responses from UK officials – nearly half of them at Grade 7 or above. Just 2.9% of respondents worked for HM Treasury or the Cabinet Office, and 4.9% in DDAT roles; so the findings largely represent the views of non-DDAT staff in the line departments.

“Solid progress has been made to improve the use of data, particularly throughout the pandemic,” said Vicki Chauhan, NTT DATA’s head of public sector. “It is interesting to note so many respondents were in agreement that the government should have stronger levers to promote data compliance throughout the civil service. It shows that change needs to come from the centre and highlights that civil servants are fully supportive of government’s continuing focus on unlocking the potential of data, as a means of enhancing both civil servant and citizen experience.”

NTT DATA has created a website allowing visitors to download the full report, examine the key findings, and access the full anonymised dataset.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.

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