Know your knowledge: organising governments’ data assets

By on 09/07/2021
From vile to file: making sense of your data assets can boost efficiency and provide easy access to information, improving decision-making. Illustration by Katy Smith

At the Government Digital Summit, digital leaders from 15 countries debated their goals and frustrations in the gargantuan task of improving data management. Matt Ross hears how officials from the UK to Azerbaijan are working to bring order to their data dumps

At the UK’s Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Gina Gill’s digital team are busy modernising service delivery for the department’s user groups – who range from judges to prison officers; from civil service HQ staff to private sector solicitors; from offenders to the victims of their crimes.

Speaking in the session on data at the 2021 Government Digital Summit – an annual gathering of national digital leaders, convened this year in the virtual world – Gill, the ministry’s interim CDIO, revealed the range of work required to serve such a disparate set of stakeholders.

The ministry is, for example, “digitalising and simplifying forms online – making it easier for users to find and complete the right form.”

It’s “replacing our old disparate, legacy systems with micro-services” – creating time-saving systems that staff can access on mobile devices.

It’s giving prisoners access to basic laptops, enabling them to “manage their own administration: to find out if they’ve got a visitor; if they’ve got education that day; how much money they have in their account. All these are things they’d [otherwise] have to ask a prison officer.”

And it’s operating an analytical platform “that allows us to join up data from different sources, and then to build applications to interrogate and present that data”; the insights it produces are being used to shape justice policies, she explained.

Such reforms don’t only benefit service users, Gill emphasised: they also help improve the ministry’s own data quality and handling. “We’re ingesting structured data; and only the data that we really, really need,” she said. The new form to claim compensation after becoming the victim of a sexual offence asks 58% fewer questions than its predecessor, she explained – but because data flows directly into case management systems, “it helps us get to decisions faster, and it also improves the traceability between data and the decisions we’re making.”

Pulling in new data sources

Governments can also make good use of aggregated and anonymised data held by businesses, noted Matthew Lindsay, the Global Lead for Data and Services at event knowledge partner Mastercard. His company handles 87bn financial transactions a year for 60m merchants, he explained – providing a detailed, real-time picture of changes in the economy. Most countries have created “recovery roadmaps” to rebuild their economies in the wake of the pandemic, he added: such data can help with “activating and acting on that roadmap – getting it in motion, executing the digital strategies, and collaborating to innovate.”

Matthew Lindsay
Global Lead, Government & Public Sector, Mastercard

Through the global City Possible network, for example, Mastercard has worked with New York City’s leaders to understand how during the pandemic “consumer spending has declined – which industries, which geographies – and how they can target their recovery, ensuring that [support] is going to the places where it’ll have the biggest impact.” The company’s financial systems can be equally useful in delivering that support: in one country, Mastercard provided small businesses with credit cards as part of the government’s economic stimulus package. “Spending was restricted to agreed uses, ensuring that money would go back into the local supply chain” and that public funds weren’t misused, Lindsay explained.

Other data sources can be tapped to supplement financial info: Mastercard has worked with Georgia’s government to better understand tourists’ habits, interests and preferences through social media. “That generates a massive pool of data that can be used to understand when it’s time to expand certain services and hotel [capacity], or to try to draw people to under-the-radar attractions”, he commented.

Creating a single view of citizens

But even with access to better data, governments can’t realise the full value of digital unless they tackle process reform and capability development. In many cases, commented Gill, the MoJ’s users are still required to print forms and post them in: “There’s paper everywhere in our organisation: we scan it, we print it, we move it around, we store it, and we key it into some of our key systems,” she said. “It’s a challenge we are tackling.”

Tariq Hussain
Senior Director, UK Public Sector, Dell Technologies

To address the problems that occur when data is duplicated, inaccurate, hidden, inaccessible or out of date, government bodies need to rebuild their data systems and reform management practices. In Gill’s view, giving departments a shared way to identify individual service users would help them join up services and realise data’s potential to improve decision-making. “Who should own the single source of truth for basic information about an offender?” she asked. “That’s going to require work across government, because it’s not just MoJ that needs access to that information. So I think there’s a role for the centre in determining ownership and making sure we’re not duplicating.”

Tariq Hussain, senior director for UK public sector at knowledge partner Dell Technologies, pointed out that technologies can help address the problem. Software produced by Dell business Boomi, for example, uses AI to compare and reconcile different records, “so if the spelling of the name is slightly wrong, or the address, it will match it together automatically to bring it into a single source.”

Fariz Jafarov
Director – E-Gov Center, Azerbaijan

Ultimately, though, “it’s quite difficult to share data unless you have one citizen identity,” commented Kevin Cunnington, a former Director General of the UK’s Government Digital Service then serving as the country’s Digital Envoy. Asked whether progress on this front demands action by teams at the centre of government, he replied: “Somebody has to own it; I think it has to be owned in one place; and the natural place for that is the centre… I don’t think there’s any other way to get there”.

Some countries have long since got there: Azerbaijan, for example, allocates each citizen a reference number – enabling departments to link services up around them. As Fariz Jafarov, Director of the country’s E-Gov Center, explained: “When there’s a birth, the system generates a unique number for that person – and that number will be used until the end of that person’s life. So all information systems are linked to each other by using this personal identification number. Companies have taxpayer numbers, and some other objects have identification numbers; we can link all this data.”

The German approach

This ‘single source of truth’ strengthens governments’ ability to make better use of data internally; digital ID systems then streamline access to services, supporting user dashboards that open up many more possibilities. Germany has the first of these, thanks to its longstanding citizen ID cards; and Tobias Plate, Head of the Federal Chancellery’s Digital State Unit, explained that it’s now working to build the second – propelled by a new law requiring all administrative services to go online by the end of 2022.

The country intends to build a system adopted by private businesses as well as central and local government bodies, he explained: to become popular, it will have to be useful to citizens in many aspects of their daily lives. Plate’s team have developed a smartphone “wallet” that can hold citizens’ national IDs alongside other information such as bank details, employee IDs, qualification certificates, marriage licenses, and even purchases such as concert tickets. “Everyone can have a wallet on their smartphone, and decide what they want to put inside it,” he said, adding that it will use “self-sovereign identity: a distributed ledger technology that means that only [users] will know which details are in their wallet, and they’ll decide who to share these credentials with.”

Dr Tobias Plate
Head of ‘Digital State’ Unit – Federal Chancellery, Germany

It’s important, argued Plate, that Germany’s digital ID system can be integrated with others across the EU: “Companies tell us that if you have a new solution in Germany, and they can’t use it for their customers once they’ve crossed the border to Austria, the Netherlands or wherever, then it’s more or less useless.” Indeed, since the Summit the European Commission has set out its plans for a system of bloc-wide digital ID standards. “In an ideal world, it would even work worldwide,” Plate added. “But that will be the next step; the first step is to make it work in the EU.”

Meanwhile, Germany is planning to run up to 10 pilots during 2021, involving 18 major businesses: Chancellor Angela Merkel has, said Plate, been “persuading them not only to develop this solution together, but also to implement the solution in their businesses.” The first pilot will digitise business travellers’ hotel check-ins: scanning a QR code, customers will approve the sharing of their national ID, employee credentials and employer’s details. It’s a useful test of combining public and private sector data, Plate explained, adding that hotels are “very open to innovation now, because of the problems they have due to the pandemic.”

Germany’s system could also hold data on people’s COVID vaccination status, said Plate. And Jafarov noted that Azerbaijan is already building that capability: sharing Ministry of Health data with global aviation body IATA’s new app, the government will enable people to evidence their vaccinations and COVID test results. “So Azerbaijani citizens will not carry papers with them when they fly to different countries,” he said. “It’s a nice solution.”

Keeping the public on board

GDPR rules allow citizens to require that their personal data be deleted, commented Cunnington: is there a tension with Germany’s plans to use distributed ledger (AKA blockchain) technology, an “immutable source of data” that can’t be amended after its creation? No personal data is stored on the blockchain, replied Plate – only “keys”. Even quantum computers probably can’t get back to the personal data that lies behind them, he added: “With other computers, it’s definitely impossible.”

Kevin Cunnington
Digital Envoy for the UK and Director General, International Government Service, United Kingdom

Germany’s digital ID champions – like those of other countries around the world – will face many such questions over the coming years; for many populations are increasingly sensitive about governments’ use of their data. A delegate from one country noted that, when they created their own national ID system decades ago, the task was “a bit easier than it is today, in a way more digitalised world; there are some worries that people have.”

Azerbaijan’s system helps address these concerns by giving citizens complete oversight of how their data is being accessed and used, noted Jafarov. And Gill suggested that governments can strengthen public trust by sharing data only when there’s a clear benefit to citizens: “I think it’s really important that we understand the user needs that we’re trying to address,” she said, noting that the public has “questions about data privacy; questions about security; questions about the perception of intrusion.”

Rules to live by

The responsible use of data is just as important within the private sector, commented Lindsay: “Businesses must build accountability and integrity into their data practices,” he said, emphasising the need for transparency, accuracy, security, and a focus on protecting fairness in data-driven decision-making. And he sketched out five ways in which leaders – within governments and businesses alike – can keep pressing the data agenda forwards.

“Doubling down on data responsibility,” he argued, is “absolutely critical to building trust with populations and ensuring that data is being used the right way.” Second comes “sharing knowledge – across cities, regions, countries – to ensure that the progress being made is understood and can be redeployed at scale.” Then there’s the need to reform systems – such as those governing procurement – to “help deploy technology in a way that can have the biggest impact.” Fourth is “instituting standards and best practices; and the last is measuring results: being able to understand where the impact is being felt, and how [systems] can be refined and tweaked.”

Governments have made rapid progress on the use of data during the pandemic. The most immediate challenge facing data leaders, in Lindsay’s words, is “to ensure that all the ground gained during this period isn’t lost once people come out of the pandemic environment.” But those with less developed data infrastructures and policies will quickly need to move onto the next, and much greater tasks: those of creating a ‘single source of truth’ for citizen data, and building the digital ID tools required to take online services to the next level.

Although the Government Digital Summit is a private event, GGF produces reports to share as much of the discussion as possible with our readers – checking before publication that that participants are happy to be quoted. This is the second of three reports on the Summit; the first explored how countries including Singapore and South Korea used digital technologies to protect their populations through the pandemic. You can find out more about the Digital Summit via its website.

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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