UK data strategy signals new cross-government standards

By on 10/09/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Digital secretary Oliver Dowden says he doesn't intend to let the lessons learnt during the coronavirus pandemic – of the importance of quick, efficient and ethical data sharing – go to waste. (Photo courtesy UK Parliament).

The UK government has published its National Data Strategy, setting out a series of actions to drive progress on civil service data management. Published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) on 9 September, the strategy includes plans to develop an ‘Integrated Data Platform’ to link up datasets, and signals government’s intention to take a more directive approach to data management.

The government will develop a set of principles governing the use of data across government, the strategy says, and establish a cross-departmental governance mechanism to police them. This mechanism will enforce data standards, review departments’ data governance structures, and ensure that departments cover data management within their ‘Single Department Plans’.

The strategy sets out five core goals: unlocking the value of data; building a trusted data regime; transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services; ensuring the resilience of data infrastructure; and championing the international flow of data. To realise these aims, the government says it will also address the “long-running problems” around the civil service’s creaking legacy IT systems.

Transforming government use of data

The government says it aims to overcome obstacles such as the legal and security risks of data-sharing; a lack of skills, incentives or investment to drive effective governance and overhaul data infrastructure; and a lack of consistency in the standards and systems used by departments by developing a whole-of-government approach. This work will be led by a yet-to-be-appointed government chief data officer, and will aim to drive change across five key areas including capability, leadership and culture, and ethics and public trust.

To build skills and capabilities, the government plans to recruit leaders with data and digital skills across government to build a strong cadre of technical, policy, legal and analytical data experts, in-line with reforms being driven by prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings. It pledges to train 500 public sector analysts in data science by 2021, to review data training available to all civil servants and develop proposals to enhance and extend this offering, and to design a career pathway for data expertise in government. It will also offer ten fellowships each year to attract world-class tech talent to Downing Street.

“The coronavirus pandemic showed how much can be achieved when government departments and the wider public sector share vital information to solve problems quickly. We have a duty to maintain that high watermark after the pandemic, and will implement major and radical changes in the way the government uses data to drive innovation and productivity across the UK,” the strategy says. “In doing so, we will improve the delivery of public services, as well as our ability to measure the impact of policies and programmes, and to ensure resources are used effectively.”

Building trust and championing international data flow

The strategy also signals changes to the regulatory regime governing the use and sharing of government data. Following press briefings that Cummings intends to set up a national digital ID scheme, the document says government will establish a national engagement campaign on the societal benefits of the use of government data; establish a team of experts who will be tasked with setting a consistent interpretation of the legal regime around data sharing; and explore the role of privacy-enhancing technologies to improve consumer control and confidence. The aim, the strategy says, is to work with regulators to strike a balance that protects data and individuals while enabling businesses to innovate.

Meanwhile, the document says, the government will explore mechanisms to deliver more transparency on the use of algorithmic decision-making within the public sector. And in order to champion the international flow of data, it will facilitate cross-border flow; drive data standards and interoperability internationally; and create approaches and tools that ensure personal data is safeguarded.

“Our response to coronavirus has shown just how much we can achieve when we can share high-quality data quickly, efficiently and ethically. I don’t intend to let that lesson go to waste,” digital secretary Oliver Dowden said in a speech to mark the launch of the document. “Our new National Data Strategy will maintain the high watermark of data use set during the pandemic – freeing up businesses, government and organisations to innovate, experiment and drive a new era of growth.”

Data in business

To unlock the value of data across the economy, the government aims to make data available to smaller companies – whose limited access to data puts them at a disadvantage relative to big tech firms – and to improve public sector decision-making through better data access.

“Much of the transformative potential of data lies in the potential for linkage and re-use of datasets across organisations, domains and sectors,” the policy paper says. “We must ensure that the right conditions and incentives are in place to encourage organisations to work together across the economy, ensuring appropriate and timely access to data that is of sufficient quality.”  

The government’s first step will be to develop a clearer policy framework to identify where greater data access and availability can and should support growth and innovation; what forms of data are most important; and what government’s role should be, in the UK and globally.

Split responsibilities  

The National Data Strategy was first announced two years ago. The delay to its publication was criticised last year by the Public Accounts Committee and noted by the National Audit Office, with the latter commenting that the delay had occurred in large part “because staff were diverted to EU Exit work”.

DCMS was responsible for government use of data between 2018 and July this year, when the PM announced that the agenda would be handed back to the Cabinet Office. The strategy does not set out how responsibilities for delivery will be split between DCMS and the Cabinet Office, which is recruiting the chief data officer.

The government has launched a consultation to help shape the core principles of the National Data Strategy, its ambitions for the use of data across the economy and policy proposals. The paper asks stakeholders to answer a series of questions by 20 December, after which the government will publish its response. 

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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