Responsible innovation: how to put data to work in government

By on 04/12/2020 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Getting the right systems in place: civil servants need leadership, training and infrastructure to ensure data is used to its full potential while protecting public trust. Credit: Riccardo Bresciani/Pexels

At Innovation 2020, a panel of senior leaders from Israel, Germany, Canada and the UK discussed how better management and use of data can support public sector innovation – and identified crucial gaps around standards, training and leadership. Kate Hodge reports

“The opportunity is really about responsible innovation: using data in a way that enables us to do more to deliver better services, but also maintains trust among our citizens and our colleagues,” said Sue Bateman, deputy director of data and innovation at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS).

Bateman was speaking at a panel session during Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2020 event. The previous day, senior officials from around the world had chaired workshops for civil servants, exploring how best to promote innovation in the management and sharing of data; now they were coming together to share their findings in panel discussions.

In this second panel, experts agreed that COVID-19 has revealed the potential to make better use of data. But as Bateman pointed out, civil servants must do so while retaining public trust; and that means putting in place the right leadership, training, strategies and systems.

Challenge and opportunity

Julie Pierce, director of openness, data and digital, and director for Wales, Food Standards Agency, UK

At the centre of the data management is finding the right data: it must be good quality, clean, suitably formatted, and delivered on time. Julie Pierce, director of openness, data and digital at the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), illustrated this point by explaining how the organisation ensured vulnerable people could access food during the pandemic. The project was notable “because of its speed of delivery, its need and the way that we linked partners up”.

The FSA had to find the right people, contact them and ensure those in need received help, she said; but even with a strong need and clear plan, generating the required dataset was a challenge. “All we were trying to find was very simple contact details for those people – understanding who is in what category, and how do I connect with them,” said Pierce. “But it proved really hard to find the data and to make sure that it was accurate and up to date, even when all eyes were on us to try to make it happen.”

Public servants do recognise the need to improve data management and sharing, commented Eileen Fuchs, principle and head of division for digital policy at the Federal Ministry of the Interior in Germany. She’d run a live poll at the beginning of her workshop, she said, “and for most of the participants, the benefits of data sharing and better data management were clear in the sense that they could achieve more working together within government, especially in a data-driven economy; especially in the times of a pandemic; and also with a view to the citizens and businesses who need to profit from data.”

Mireille Laroche, chief data officer at the Canada Revenue Agency and assistant commissioner of its Service, Innovation and Integration Branch, Canada

But there is a “hesitancy” among officials around sharing data, she said, because many are unsure about what they can distribute. “One thing that came out quite clearly is the legal dimension – the legal categories of data, classified data, personal data, privacy concerns, GDPR,” she explained.

This can create a closed, protective culture, said Mireille Laroche, chief data officer at the Canada Revenue Agency and assistant commissioner of its Service, Innovation and Integration Branch. “Often enough, as people are responsible for data, they think it’s their own data,” she commented. “And they have not always a willingness, even within an organisation, to share it for broader use because they fear they are losing control of the data, and what it means, and how it’s going to be used.”

Such concerns are shared the public too. Scandals such as technology firm Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of personal data have created assumptions among citizens that “if we were to start analysing their personal data, even for COVID and for the pandemic, it’s some sort of a threat to them and to their privacy,” said Shahar Bracha, acting chief executive of the government ICT authority at The National Digital Ministry in Israel.


Shahar Bracha, acting chief executive, Government ICT Authority, The National Digital Ministry, Israel

One solution, suggested Bracha, is to establish robust standards governing data quality, sharing and ethics. “We need the standards, we need the framework about how we do it,” he said. “How do you build your data? And how do you share it in the legal framework? How do you keep it anonymised? How do you keep it private? How do you keep the ownership of the data, even after you deliver it to the outside, especially to the private sector?”

Training was identified as another area that could support data management. “Data literacy skills for every employee in government should be made mandatory,” said Fuchs, pointing to Germany’s new digital academy for federal employees. She also suggested having more data scientists “so we have experts you can refer to”.

Some civil servants in Bracha’s workshop also suggested ways of using public data to generate revenue streams to help fund better data management. “We need to create some sort of an ecosystem with the private sector to create value to this data. Maybe in some sort of an open source application where you can get it for free, but if you generate any revenue from it, you can have to bring it back. We talked about a couple of frameworks like that,” he said.

Vision and leadership

Eileen Fuchs, principle and head of division; digital policy, Federal Ministry of the Interior, Germany

While workforce needs a better understanding of data, so do many managers. Bateman identified “data-literate, informed decision-makers across the public sector” as one barrier to innovation. The GDS in the UK is working to improve cross-government leadership on data issues, and Fuchs suggested that other governments should also appoint senior data leaders. Every major public body should have a chief data officer (CDO), she suggested, with one cross-government CDO to “implement the data culture and set standards and procedures when it comes to quality of data.”

Julie Pierce of the UK’s FSA added that it’s also important to have a data strategy: the FSA’s has become “core” to its overall business strategy, she said, and is embedded into everything the organisation does. “It goes right to the top of the organisation, as well as it being cascaded all the way down,” she added.

Sue Bateman, deputy director, data and innovation, Government Digital Service, UK

In the spirit of innovation, Bateman noted that not all initiatives will succeed: people need a “license to fail fast and fail quickly, whilst making sure that we’ve got all the proper safeguards in place,” she said. But there are huge opportunities when such projects prove effective. “I think there’s a real role here for digital and data professionals to be helping to bring to life what is possible,” she commented, “demonstrating the power and the possibility of data in the delivery of a real-life service.”

We have, of course, seen many such examples during the pandemic – with officials using data in novel ways to understand the behaviour of both people and COVID-19, deliver brand new services, and track the pandemic’s impact. This work, said Laroche, has created an opportunity; now civil servants must take it. “I think for those responsible for data, we really need to seize that opportunity,” she concluded: governments should “push through, and make sure that we put in place infrastructure and practices so that something changes.”

Innovation 2020 comprised over 20 workshops for civil servants from around the world, each addressing different aspects of innovation; those workshops’ chairs then sat on five panel discussions on the second day of the event. The first panel discussion covered the skills and tools required to innovate. This report covers the second panel, which focused on managing and using data; we’ll publish reports on the other panels soon.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected].

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