Civil servants’ ideas win the backing of UK digital leaders at ‘Dragon’s Den’-style Data Challenge Semi-Final

By on 08/10/2021 | Updated on 22/10/2021
Teams of civil servants pitched data ideas to a panel of top digital leaders at the Semi-Final of the Civil Service Data Challenge

Four teams of civil servants won through the ‘Dragon’s Den’-style Semi-Final of the UK’s Civil Service Data Challenge on Thursday, securing a place at December’s Final event and a chance of winning £50,000 (US$68,000) of funding to bring their project to life.

After hearing pitches from eight teams, the judging panel of senior digital leaders picked ideas covering criminal justice, benefits, foreign affairs and sustainability – but emphasised that all eight concepts should be taken forward, with individual judges pledging to help champion the remaining four projects across Whitehall.

Under the Data Challenge – a joint venture between the Cabinet Office, the Office of National Statistics (ONS), Global Government Forum and NTT DATA UK – civil servants were invited to put forward their ideas on how government could make better use of data. Multi-departmental, interdisciplinary teams of volunteers were then formed around eight of the most promising concepts, kicking off a three-month research and development phase before each spent half an hour pitching to – and being quizzed by – the judging panel.

Combining forces

“The day’s been fantastic, with so many brilliant ideas from diverse teams all across the civil service,” said judge Henry de Zoete, a Cabinet Office non-executive director and a former winner of TV’s Dragon’s Den programme. Team members were drawn from a huge range of roles including “the frontline, policy teams, operational teams, data scientists,” he added. “It’s been brilliant to see everybody working together across government, across all departments and across disciplines.”

“The brilliance of today is that you’re hearing from people on the frontline, dealing with problems that you wouldn’t necessarily hear about in the senior civil service,” said de Zoete. “And the key thing is that they’re also the best people to work out the solutions to those problems – so empowering those brilliant civil servants is a really important part of the Challenge.”

Praising the quality of all the teams’ presentations, chair of the judging panel Vicki Chauhan – NTT DATA UK’s head of public sector – emphasised how hard it had been to select the four finalists, whose ideas illustrate the range of ways in which government could make better use of data and the power of interdisciplinary, cross-departmental teamworking.

Civil service volunteers explain an idea for tracking medicines supplies to digital chiefs at the Civil Service Data Challenge

On to the Final

A team combining staff across eight different organisations, for example, proposed the creation of a real-time data dashboard tracking the distribution of UK citizens around the world. “In a crisis, we need to know who needs help and where they need help, and this is a great use of data to help achieve that,” commented Chauhan, adding that it was a “well-prepared team with a strong presentation, and the timeliness of this idea – given recent events in Afghanistan – drove home the need for it to be brought to life.”

Another team won through with a proposal to link up existing datasets, identifying benefits fraud and error among construction workers. This “high-energy team” made “a really strong case for using data to ensure benefits reach those who are due them, whilst also ensuring that fraud and error is reduced,” she said.

A plan to increase prisoners’ social contacts and avoid them becoming isolated represented a “great application of how data can be used to make a real impact on people’s lives,” Chauhan explained, adding that the idea “resonated with us all very strongly, given the strong link between prisoners having social contact and reduced re-offending rates.”

Finally, the judges picked a proposal to identify moorland drains by applying AI technologies to aerial photography, supporting work to protect peat bogs. “We were impressed by the sheer passion of this team,” said Chauhan, noting that it was “a great presentation that showed how using AI technology can tangibly help to tackle a very real carbon emissions problem.”

Never waste a good idea

These four teams will move onto the next stage of the Challenge. With the help of facilitators, data specialists and coders supplied by NTT DATA UK – which has invested about £200,000 in assisting the teams – they’ll further develop their ideas, before pitching them to a new panel of programme sponsors at the Final. There, the best-performing will win access to a further £50,000 worth of development work from NTT DATA UK.

Meanwhile, each of the other four ideas will be supported and championed by one of the Semi-Final judges. Alongside Chauhan and de Zoete, Thursday’s judging panel comprised Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) director Joanna Davinson; Alison Pritchard, ONS director general for data capability and deputy national statistician; Sue Bateman, head of the CDDO’s Data and Innovation Team; and HMRC CDIO Daljit Rehal.

The Civil Service Data Challenge used a ‘Dragon’s Den’ format, with judges putting questions to the interdisciplinary teams

“The judges have already said that no matter what happens, they’re going to do what they can to help, because the truth is that all of these ideas – whether they get through to the final or not – are things that we should be doing,” commented de Zoete. “Some are more immediately practical and might get through to the final while others don’t, but they’re all valid and fantastic and something should be done for them – and these are all ideas that we wouldn’t know about if it wasn’t for the Challenge.”

Nicer dragons

Emphasising the power of bringing together people from across the professions and departments, Graham Stewart – head of supply chain delivery at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), whose team developed an idea to track stocks and movements of medicines – commented that “the ability to work across departments and teams has been incredible; the networking opportunities have been beyond belief.” The Challenge has provided a way to take the concept forward with the support of colleagues outside DHSC, he added.

Asked how the experience compared to his own appearance before TV’s Dragons Den, de Zoete replied: “I hope I’m being a bit nicer than some of the Dragons were to me! I remember it being absolutely nerve-wracking doing it myself, so my hat’s off to all of the teams. Coming into that room and doing those short pitches is never easy, and everybody’s doing brilliantly well.”

For more about the Data Challenge, visit the dedicated website – where you can learn more about all of the eight ideas pitched at the Semi-Final. A video capturing the day’s key moments will be available shortly.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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