UK’s Cabinet Office wins back government data brief after two-year hiatus

By on 24/07/2020
Boris Johnson said the move would “help ensure that government data is used most effectively to drive policy making and service delivery”. (Photo by Andrew Parsons, courtesy No 10 Downing Street via flickr).

Responsibility for the UK government’s use of data has been moved back to the Cabinet Office from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday.

In a written statement to Parliament on the last day before summer recess, Johnson wrote that the change, which is effective immediately, will “help ensure that government data is used most effectively to drive policy making and service delivery”. He added that the DCMS will retain responsibility for data policy “for the economy and society”.

A new team in the Cabinet Office will take on responsibility for areas including open government, open data, data ethics, transparency and public-sector data policies, sitting initially inside the Government Digital Service (GDS), according to Civil Service World. Five policy specialists are moving from DCMS to the Cabinet Office to join the new team. No further details have so far been divulged. 

The GDS, a unit within the Cabinet Office tasked with leading digital transformation across government, oversaw data policy from its launch in 2011 until April 2018. Responsibility was then passed to DCMS by then-PM Theresa May after she moved Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock – a technophile – to the department.

At the time, the decision was lamented by former GDS leaders who warned that it undermined the digital agenda within government. Mike Bracken, head of the GDS from its foundation until 2015, called the move “curious in the extreme”, and tweeted: “So there it is. End of central UK authority for digital, data and technology. Whitehall power structure more important than user needs.”

And Tom Loosemore, who was deputy director of GDS for nearly five years to October 2015, said: “So UK government data policy is now in the weakest and most easily-ignored department, derided as the Dept of Fun by the rest of Whitehall. Why? Egos, I’m afraid.”

Supporters of the move argued that data is a major national policy issue, and that its management should sit alongside the responsibilities for regulating the media and supporting digital industries.

Lack of progress

However, since the 2018 move, DCMS has made little progress on pushing the data agenda. It has failed to produce a national data strategy – though it retains responsibility for doing so, and aims to publish one by the end of the year – and was delayed in appointing its first head of data policy. It eventually did so in November 2019.  

The DCMS’s apparent failure to make any clear progress on the data agenda has been put down, in part, to the departure of Hancock and the government’s chief technology officer Liam Maxwell – who had followed Hancock from the Cabinet Office to DCMS – in summer 2018, and to the need for officials to prioritise Brexit. The National Audit Office noted last summer that DCMS “has not made the progress it expected in establishing its leadership or developing the national data strategy, largely because staff were diverted to EU Exit work”.

More broadly, the government’s data progress has been hampered by the lack of a chief data officer – a role which has been vacant since 2015 and remains unfulfilled despite a 2017 Cabinet Office pledge to recruit someone by 2020. The search for a government chief digital and information officer, a new permanent secretary level role advertised last year by the Cabinet Office, also continues.

According to a highly critical report published in September by the UK’s parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, it was not clear who was responsible for planning and driving the changes needed to improve government’s use of data. 

Strengthening GDS?

Johnson’s decision to move data responsibility back to the Cabinet Office, and by extension the GDS, will give the central digital unit’s supporters confidence that it is regaining some of the influence it has lost in recent years, and that it will act as a catalyst to improve information sharing across Whitehall.    

The need for more progress on the data agenda isn’t lost on GDS director general Alison Pritchard, who told Global Government Forum in an interview last year that taking Brexit out of the equation, her biggest priorities were data and digital identity. “There aren’t really any technical barriers any more, other than making sure people are abiding by the standards,” she said. “It’s now about working out the use cases and delivering those at scale.”  

Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at think tank the Institute for Government, tweeted: “Time for shuffling deckchairs is over – it’s time for government to set a direction”.  

Some believe shifting data responsibility back to the Cabinet Office is part of a plan by Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings to improve data use across Whitehall to help inform policymaking and implementation, and to strengthen No10’s position at the heart of government, in line with the government’s mooted reforms of the civil service.

The news follows the Cabinet Office’s advertisement earlier this month for a candidate to head up a newly-created data science unit at No10.

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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