New tech will ‘magnify’ data flaws, says UK watchdog

By on 01/07/2019 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Protesters outside the Home Office demonstrate following the ‘Windrush scandal’, in which British citizens were mistreated – thanks in part to the use of poor quality data (Image courtesy: Global Justice Now).

The UK government risks “magnifying” problems in the quality of its data through the application of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

In its report Challenges in using data across government, the NAO identifies three key challenges in the government’s handling of data: that data is not always seen as a priority; that the quality of data is not well understood in government departments; and that there’s a culture of tolerating and working around poor-quality data.

While government has invested in new tools and technology “this does

not guarantee that data in the systems is of good enough quality,” the report’s authors write. While artificial intelligence and robotic process automation technologies hold huge potential for the future, they say, “layering new technology on top of existing data carries a significant risk of magnifying rather than overcoming the problems associated with data quality.”

Windrush to judgement

According to the report, the Windrush scandal “demonstrated the effect of decisions based on poor data.” The situation, which saw thousands of Afro-Caribbean UK citizens wrongly detained, deported or denied their rights as a result of ‘hostile environment’ policies aimed at illegal immigrants, occurred after the Home Office undertook “elements of data-sharing activities without fully assessing the impact of the quality of the underlying data.”

Additionally, it says, departments are often unable to assess the effectiveness of projects due to “inadequate” data. For example, the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) could not tell the watchdog how its job centres were providing services to disabled people, and the Department for Education (DoE) failed to collect key datasets from academies and maintained schools.

The report also points to “inconsistent” ways of recording information such as name, address and date of birth across government. The NAO found more than 20 ways of collecting basic ID data across 10 departments, and urges the development of cross-government rules and standards to remedy this.

Confused leadership

The NAO attributes many of the government’s current data challenges to a lack of direction from the top. “Despite years of effort and many well-documented failures, government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data,” the report said. “This has led to departments under-prioritising their own efforts to manage and improve data.”

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was given the job of leading the government’s policy efforts on data in April 2018, separating the issue from other aspects of digital technology – which remained in the brief of the Government Digital Service. The move helped bolster then-culture secretary Matt Hancock’s work with the creative industries, but created a fracture in the government’s work across data and technology; Hancock then promptly left for a new job as health secretary.

DMCS has struggled to establish its leadership or develop the 2020 national data strategy, the NAO says, “largely because staff were diverted to EU Exit work.” The NAO report also points out that a new government chief data officer has yet to be appointed. Meanwhile, the government has also announced the departure of its digital chief and its geodata lead – although the latter has at least been replaced.

Up your game

The NAO urges the government to use its upcoming data strategy to “push a sea change in strategy and leadership”, lest it become “yet another missed opportunity.”

Other recommendations directed at the DCMS and Cabinet Office include: using the data strategy to identify and address the barriers to better use of data; setting up clear cross-government accountability, governance and funding for data to support delivery of the data strategy; developing cross-government rules, standards and common ways to collect, store, record and manage data; and identifying datasets that are critical to government functions.

“The steps government needs to take to use data effectively are as much about good management, governance and planning within its existing activities, as they are about learning to work with new technologies,” says the report.

Watch this space

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to using data more effectively to drive innovation across public services, streamline policy making processes and promote economic growth.

“To help the UK build a world-class data economy, we are working with industry and across government on a new National Data Strategy to make sure the future use of data is ethical and benefits business and wider society.

“The National Audit Office’s report highlights the opportunities presented by our forthcoming strategy and we look forward to progressing this important work.”

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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