UK MPs call for ‘long overdue’ change in government’s approach to data

By on 02/10/2019
John Manzoni, chief executive of the UK civil service, has been urged by MPs to fulfil the government’s long-standing aim of hiring a chief data officer

A highly critical report from the UK’s parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found that a long-standing failure to improve the quality of data in government has led to inadequate services, poor decision-making, and lack of understanding on how best to improve.

The committee of MPs said that while the government is increasingly using technology and data, departments “have been left to develop their own processes for data, leading to inconsistency across government”.

“Data has not been treated as a valuable asset, so it has become normal to ‘work around’ poor quality, disorganised data,” the committee said. “A step-change in the government’s approach to data is long overdue.”

The committee found that leadership of initiatives to improve data is fragmented and unclear; that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Cabinet Office have made little progress in developing the data strategy since they began work on it over a year ago; and that the Cabinet Office has not developed a useful set of standards to support effective use of data across government. The Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) lost control of data policy to DCMS in April 2018, but the culture department has made little progress on the agenda since.

The committee also said that ageing IT systems across government make it difficult for data to be used effectively and efficiently, and that government officials’ concerns about protecting data can stand in the way of using it to coordinate services.

Persistent pressure from the centre

The committee notes that while DCMS has announced that it will produce “yet another” data strategy, “previous initiatives to improve the use of data across government has not delivered the benefits promised”.

It said the government has “barely scratched the surface” of what needs to be done to enable it to use data to deliver joined-up public services and increase efficiency, that there are “significant challenges” – including a civil service culture that does not support sharing data across departmental boundaries – and that it “will not be a quick or simple task”.

“Government must tackle these [challenges] while upholding the public’s trust in how government uses their data,” the committee said. ”Our experience of other cross-government initiatives tells us that government-wide improvements depend on persistent and firm pressure from the centre of government, or this new strategy will become another missed opportunity.”

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

Search for a chief data officer  

The report concludes that it is not clear who is responsible for planning and driving the changes needed to improve government’s use of data.

The government began its search for a chief data officer (CDO) more than two years ago, but it has not yet filled the role. Senior officials admitted at a PAC session in July that they wanted “conditions for success” to be in place before appointing a CDO.

The committee recommends that Cabinet Office and DCMS appoint a CDO, to act as a single point of accountability for government’s use of data, as a matter of urgency.

The committee is also critical of DCMS’s failure to develop a national data strategy, announced over a year ago to “unlock the power of data across government and the wider economy”. DCMS has committed to publishing the national data strategy in the “course of next year” but hasn’t set a firm deadline.

“We remain sceptical the strategy will make inroads into improving government’s use of data or that government has a clear plan on how to do this or who has responsibility”, the MPs said, recommending that the Cabinet Office write to the committee by 31 March 2020 setting out how the government plans to improve its use of data including priorities, milestones and accountabilities.

“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 government spokesperson said.

Working across departments

The committee acknowledged that working together across departments is difficult, largely due to departmental funding, accountability and a culture of working within departments’ boundaries.

It said DCMS “has not thought through” how to get departments on board to fulfil the data strategy and that “continued and sustained” pressure from the Cabinet Office and DCMS will be needed if the government is to use data more efficiently and effectively. “If this is left to individual departments to do voluntarily, it is likely to be squeezed out by other priorities,” it said.  

It recommends the Cabinet Office and the GDS should identify and prioritise the top 10 data standards that would benefit government by 1 April 2020, and monitor implementation by departments.

Ageing IT systems

As for IT infrastructure, the committee’s report says that the government’s ageing systems make extracting data expensive and “sometimes impossible”.

“We have seen numerous projects where the importance of good quality data for monitoring progress of the programmes and policies the systems were intended to support was an afterthought,” the committee said, citing Universal Credit – a widely-criticised benefits system – as an example.

The MPs said replacing or modifying government systems will “take time and be costly and needs careful planning”, and expressed surprise that the government does not have a list of its ageing IT systems on which to base its strategy.

“Government needs to get its own house in order – to understand its ageing IT systems and the problems with them – before it can hope to take advantage of the opportunities from using and sharing data better,” the MPs said.

Preserving public trust

The committee recognises that “preserving public trust is a precondition for government to use data more effectively and it is right that officials are concerned about data protection”, but argues that front-line staff are “afraid of making mistakes and do not always have the operational guidance they need to give them confidence and knowledge of when and how to share data appropriately”.

It acknowledges that DCMS has taken steps to help departments use data ethically and in new ways, including setting up the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, but says that this and the Digital Economy Act 2017, which has made gaining parliamentary approval to share data between departments or with external bodies easier, have had a “limited impact so far”.

The committee’s final recommendation is that DCMS review departments’ data-sharing guidance and standard operating processes, and report how well they support the wider use of data alongside data protection by 30 June 2020.

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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