Civil servants call for stronger leadership on data agenda

By on 02/11/2023 | Updated on 06/11/2023
A picture from the National Data Strategy roundtable: what’s been done, and what is still to do

The accepted wisdom holds that departmental officials tend to resist the centre’s attempts to exert control across government. But at a recent round table convened to debate the UK’s National Data Strategy, several UK data leaders and managers called for stronger, more visible leadership

“COVID really helped focus ministers’ minds on the power of data, because they found they could do loads with it. But it also shone a light on what they couldn’t do, and on the data deficits that we have.”

Speaking at a round table bringing together civil service data managers and private sector experts, this departmental data leader was ambitious about what can be achieved if government improves its use of data – but frustrated by the many barriers constraining their ability to realise that potential.

Convened with the support of knowledge partner NetApp to explore people’s views of the UK’s 2020 National Data Strategy, the round table was held under the Chatham House Rule – meaning that we may not identify those speaking. Nonetheless, the conversation clearly illuminates both the weaknesses in government’s plans to capitalise on its enormous data assets, and some of the ways in which those gaps could be plugged.

One participant’s comments neatly captured the intimidating wall of obstacles facing those working to share data or build cross-departmental services. “Culturally, people really want to share data as much as they possibly can,” they said. “But there’s a resource issue, and there’s a technology issue. We have analysts working to do stuff with data that other departments hold, and those departments have no issue with sharing it. But that share has to come with resource attached, and there isn’t really a mechanism for that. You can’t second out your data team: they’re a very valuable resource.”

“We should all be on the same side,” they continued. “Yet so often we find people are working to their own mission, keeping their staff tightly under their own wing. And then departments are not able to access others’ data, even though from the outside there seems to be a really good case for it.”

Redirecting resources

These difficulties arise even when there’s goodwill on both sides – for many officials simply lack the funding or staff capacity to engage with such projects. “I am required to run my unit as a cost recovery business, because we won’t get spending review money,” commented one data owner. This individual would like to create a “trusted research environment”, permitting fellow public servants and academics to mine their data for insights and evidence; but “I don’t know how I’m going to square the circle, in terms of cost and keeping data access affordable.”

By building the systems to share, analyse and deploy this data, government could generate huge public benefits – improving the efficiency and targeting of services, and strengthening the evidence base to develop more effective policies. But there’s little money available for capital investments; and most of the funds that do become available are channelled into small, stand-alone projects, rather than the cross-government infrastructure required to connect up departmental datasets. “There’s a lot of incentives around delivering very quick, discrete things,” commented one civil servant.

When long-term, ring-fenced infrastructure funding does come through, the results can be dramatic. One participant had been involved in a scheme to connect up dozens of data streams, creating ‘unique identifiers’ to link them together: “That’s worked because the dedicated budget meant that they could work through the pandemic, through Brexit pressures – just keep going. And they’ve delivered,” they said with pride.

Sensible goals, vaguely perceived

The National Data Strategy (NDS) was promoted as a way to realise such opportunities, in government and beyond: its five missions focus on economic growth, the data regime, infrastructure, international exchange, and “transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services.” Beneath these missions sit four fields of activity, which sensibly aim to ensure data is fit for purpose; build the nation’s data skills; make data appropriately accessible; and drive its safe and trusted use.

The Cabinet Office – which holds that fifth, government-facing mission – has set out a host of actions. Most of these focus on improving “data foundations”, with work underway to catalogue government’s data assets, unify standards, strengthen leadership and improve data quality. Yet the data owners, managers and experts around the table – a key audience for NDS leaders – were vague on the strategy’s goals and sceptical about its provisions.

Given the resourcing and budgeting issues that so often constrain progress in this field, several highlighted the lack of dedicated NDS funding: the spending announced alongside the strategy, said one, “wasn’t new money; it was just a rejigging of money already allocated to your budgets. It’s an accounting line”. As a consequence, said one data leader, ambitious departmental plans to invest in data projects are often lost because “you get spending squeezes – and these things are seen as ‘nice to haves’, because the data strategy isn’t backed up with the money and a central government push.”

Others called for a stronger focus on building capacity at the local level – in councils and service providers – to improve the data flowing into central government bodies. “We’re responsible for tidying it up, disseminating it, using it for policy – but if you want to get it right, you’ve got to get it right at source,” said one senior expert. The Cabinet Office is working to develop common data standards for use across Whitehall, they added, “but you try pushing that down to every operational practitioner giving us that data.”

There were also concerns that some NDS provisions might place yet more requirements on hard-pressed data managers, or lead to datasets being duplicated – with all the additional administrative, service and carbon costs that involves. In the main, though, the group seemed a little nonplussed by a strategy seen as combining a vast range of action points with a lack of powerful, visible leadership. “I read the National Data Strategy, and it talks about how there’s a lot of things happening,” said one participant. “But they’re not being seen, I don’t think.”

Suppliers such as NetApp are “ready to help,” commented another civil servant. “But they need something clear from the data structure about what government wants to push and the right way to do that.”

NetApp representatives agreed with the sentiment, highlighting that it uses roundtables such as this one to hear the voice of the customer to strengthen its offering. In addition, they feel they can provide context to the conversations from both the supplier side and as a consumer of services.

Calling out for leadership

Asked what would help them make progress towards the NDS’s laudable aims, the group had plenty of ideas – calling for consistent policies, reliable capital budgets, and more communication from the centre. Many NDS proposals are “great initiatives, but they’re a bit unclear,” commented one senior leader. “And they’re not the solution for the different legacy systems and legislative frameworks that we operate within.” Addressing those problems, they argued, will require proper investment, a bigger cohort of data specialists, and a much firmer push. “We’d really like a stronger centre,” said a data leader from one line department. “We constantly have the same conversations with different departments; somebody give us a lead please, rather than us having all these bilateral conversations.”

Meanwhile, participants asked for guidance on how to measure the benefits of data work and build convincing business cases for investing in data quality and accessibility. And could departments try to “increase data literacy across the service,” asked one – raising awareness both of the potential of data, and of the work required to make it accessible and usable.

Above all, participants urged senior leaders across government to prioritise the sharing and use of data – making clear to staff their own enthusiasm for this vast and under-used asset. Too often, said one official, staff “don’t feel like they’ve got permission to fill in that form and persuade somebody above them that it’s a really good idea” to get involved in a data project. Civil service bodies should view cross-departmental projects as “a core part of their functions,” said another, not a “bolt-on.”

That is a big ask, particularly at a time when so many departments are struggling to fund and deliver basic services. “Everybody’s trying to do everything, and we’re spread too thin,” commented one participant. But if the money and time could be found, investing in data would improve government’s efficiency and effectiveness – relieving some of the pressure on services. And there may, some participants said, be opportunities to cut costs by focusing on getting the basics right, rather than seeking to wow stakeholders with cutting-edge projects.

“Each department’s got to be seen to be doing awesome things, with bells and whistles and ribbons,” said one participant. “Doing simple things really well is out of fashion.” The NDS is correct, commented another, to “focus on quality, consistency, discoverability and interoperability. I think it is about focusing on improving what we’ve got, before we go chasing after the nice and shiny. That would be revolutionary!”

‘The National Data Strategy: what’s been done, and what is still to do’ roundtable was held at the Public Service Data Live conference on 14 September in partnership with knowledge partner NetApp.

It was attended by:
Katherine Williamson, Department for Transport
Atul Bhusari, Department for Work and Pensions,
Martin Waudby, Valuation Office Agency
Clare Franklin, HM Prison and Probation Service 
Emma Gordon, Administrative Data Research UK
Stephen Edmundson, Department for Business and Trade
Declan Norris, HM Revenue and Customs
Kitty Rose, Ordnance Survey
Harriet Cameron, Department for Education
Attendees from NetApp
Moderator: Matt Ross, Global Government Forum

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