UK cabinet secretary salutes COVID data heroes and discusses potential of AI at Public Service Data Live

By on 14/09/2023 | Updated on 14/09/2023
UK’s cabinet secretary Simon Case speaking to deputy national statistician Alison Pritchard at Public Service Data Live
UK’s cabinet secretary Simon Case speaking to deputy national statistician Alison Pritchard at Public Service Data Live. Photo: Tom Hampson

“There were many public service heroes in COVID, but I always make sure that statisticians and our data experts get a shout out,” Simon Case, the UK’s cabinet secretary has said.

Speaking at Public Service Data Live, a one-day government data conference held in London on Thursday organised by Global Government Forum and hosted by Case, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service praised the crucial role of civil service data professionals in protecting people’s lives and livelihoods “through the trauma and tragedy of COVID”.

“When the pandemic hit, we didn’t have the data that we needed, and we didn’t have it in the format that we needed it in – either to take decisions, or to explain to the public what was happening,” said Case. Working with unprecedented inventiveness and pace, data teams found ways to gather, process, integrate and present key datasets from government bodies, service providers, local authorities and the private sector – informing national policymakers, and enabling citizens everywhere to understand this major new threat.

“I think we accelerated the use of data in senior-level decision-making in a way we probably would never have done without the pandemic,” he continued: elected leaders have developed a clear understanding of data’s value in effective policymaking. “We now have a political class that expects to take all of their decisions informed with data,” said Case. “There isn’t a single topic left in government where there isn’t a task force and a dashboard to go alongside it.”

Asked by deputy national statistician Alison Pritchard whether this progress might be reversed, Case replied that he sees no “danger of roll-back.” The transformation of practices and ambitions across government during the pandemic “was deep enough and wide enough” to prove resilient, he argued. And the public’s expectations have been permanently raised: “In so much of our lives outside government, we’re now used to data being used to provide better services to us,” he said. “Those are now the expectations both for the public about how they want to consume public services, and for politicians about how we should be supporting them.”

Case – who has a PhD in political history – added that the history of public administration is littered with occasions when “we discover new things in moments of crisis, and then we forget them the moment the crisis is over. This is not one of those things.”

So data is here to stay; and, recognising that every civil servant will need the skills and expertise to play their part in this agenda, Case has put it at the heart of his new civil service-wide staff development programme. “We often talk about the civil service, but actually those of us who work in it know that it is a very, very large number of different organisations, and I want to start creating things that we all have in common,” he explained. “So what I said was: ‘Can we come up with one big thing that every civil servant across the country can do together and can have in common? And why don’t we make it, I don’t know, one day’s worth of data training?’”

The One Big Thing programme asks every civil servant to complete a day’s worth of data training during the year; attending Public Service Data Live, Case noted, would give his audience a head-start.

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Cabinet secretary on the role of AI

The civil service’s handling of data will become still more important with the growing use of AI technologies, which require both high-quality data and intelligent handling to produce reliable and equitable results. AI has huge potential to save lives and improve public wellbeing, said Case; but he also emphasised the need for safeguards to avert the risks involved in deploying these powerful, little-understood tools.

“We have to show people the opportunity,” he said. “But we also need to agree for ourselves – with public consent, and probably internationally – those guardrails that we are going to put in place.” If senior leaders don’t address the risks rapidly, said Case, “we could have lost the race already because what we all know – because it is the history of the adoption of technology – [is that] one incident where it goes wrong can transform how that technology is seen for generations to come. And what we don’t want to do is lose the opportunity and the possibility through careless use.”

The use of ‘black box’ AI models, whose operations become opaque to their own designers, can be “really quite an intimidating thing for some people,” Case added. “No matter how much we develop the internal combustion engine, there’s somebody with a modern version of an oily rag who can tell you what’s going on inside and can explain and talk about how you can change its performance. We have to maintain the ability to explain what’s happening here.”

The world is, the cabinet secretary said, at one of “the Prometheus moments, the cliff edge moments, the step change moments in technology, in the future of humanity.” The “opportunities are boundless and endless. But what we have to do is take everybody with us on that journey.”

As Case pointed out, “every time humanity has invented and adopted new technologies, there are winners and losers.” Civil servants must take enormous care to ensure that the introduction of AI technologies does not lead to biased decision-making or discriminatory outcomes, he argued.

“The way our democracies work, the way our public engagement and trust works, is driven by a sense of participation and equality,” the cabinet secretary concluded; the public will be watching closely, asking whether AI technologies are making their lives better. “We have to be very, very, very conscious of how we take the whole of society with us in these technology changes, because if you don’t, if you leave a very significant proportion of society behind, I mean… that’s how revolutions start.”

Finishing on a punchy note, the cabinet secretary was smiling. But as well as a public servant he is also, remember, a political historian; he knows that this is, indeed, how revolutions start.

Public Service Data Live was held on Thursday 14 September 2023 at the Business Design Centre, London and was supported by knowledge partners and exhibitors:

  • Accelerated Capability Environment (ACE) – powered by Vivace
  • Aitemology
  • Aker Systems
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Barringa
  • CHR Solutions
  • Cloudsource
  • Cognizant
  • Ctrl O
  • CTS
  • Deloitte
  • Hitachi Solutions
  • KBR
  • Liberatii
  • Metadata Works
  • Microlink
  • Moody’s Analytics
  • NetApp
  • The Office for National Statistics
  • PixselChat
  • Qlik
  • Tessell
  • The Virtual Forge
  • TPXimpact
  • Veritas
  • Valtech UK

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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