UK’s culture department appoints data policy lead – pipping Cabinet Office to the post

By on 22/11/2019
Theresa May drew criticism for transferring responsibility for data strategy from GDS to DCMS in April last year. (Image courtesy: Arno Mikkor, EU2017EE/flickr).

The UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has appointed its first head of data policy, amid ongoing tensions between DCMS and the Cabinet Office over control of the data agenda. The appointment will enable the department to develop policies on central government data policy – a responsibility which, in a controversial move early last year, DCMS took from the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service (GDS).

The appointment of Stephen Lorimer – who takes on the data policy role following a four-year stint at the Greater London Authority, where he worked under prime minister Boris Johnson during his stint as London mayor – will enable DCMS to strengthen its control of data policy in advance of the Cabinet Office’s appointment of a government chief digital information officer (GCDIO): a more senior, permanent-secretary level role, apparently designed to restore strategic, unified leadership of the digital, data and technology agendas.

The decision to move data responsibility to the DCMS – made in April 2018 by then-prime minister Theresa May – was described at the time by Mike Bracken, GDS’s founding director general, as “curious in the extreme” and criticised by a number of GDS’s former leaders for undermining the digital agenda. May’s decision came after she moved Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock – a famous technophile – to lead the culture department, after which former government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell also moved across to join DCMS. However, both Hancock and Maxwell soon left DCMS, which has since failed to make any clear progress on the data agenda.

In September, a highly critical report from the UK’s parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that it was not clear who is responsible for planning and driving the changes needed to improve government’s use of data, and was 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”.

In June 2019, the National Audit Office (NAO) noted 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.” The government has also lacked a chief data officer since 2015, though it pledged in 2017 to appoint one by 2020.

In the same month as the NAO’s report, DCMS advertised for a data policy lead, and last week it announced Lorimer’s appointment – eight weeks after the Cabinet Office advertised for a GCDIO, and a fortnight before final interviews for the GCDIO role. The department has committed to publishing the national data strategy in the “course of next year”. It hasn’t set a firm deadline, but it is understood that Lorimer will work alongside Gaia Marcus, head of data strategy, on the strategy.

The need for more progress on the data agenda isn’t lost on GDS’s interim director general, Alison Pritchard, who told Global Government Forum in an interview last month 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.”  

Suggesting that the GCDIO’s appointment will help restore a sense of strategic control across data and digital, Pritchard said that “you’d expect someone at that level of seniority to bring further momentum to the joining up of the function as a whole,” and pointed out that the GCDIO will “be sitting at the very top tables, and therefore will be able to influence thinking across departments.”

DCMS’s new appointment provides the department with a manager able to move forward its work on data policy and strategy, and is likely to help the department retain influence in the field as the GCDIO begins their work.

Leading the delivery of high-priority policy projects

According to the job advert, Lorimer will “lead the delivery of high-priority policy projects commissioned directly by the DCMS senior management team, ministers, and the two governance boards – [the] Data Leaders Network and Data Advisory Board”.

A document outlining the job spec revealed the successful candidate will report to Yasmin Brooks, director of cybersecurity and data policy at DCMS. The salary band for the position, which is a grade 6 role, was advertised as £56,191 to £67,632.

Lorimer joins DCMS from the Greater London Authority, where he was Smart London strategy and delivery officer, responsible for the Mayor of London’s smart city technology and digital public service innovation programmes. He has also held the position of senior policy officer for technology at the authority.

Prior to working in local government, he held roles at University College London, Imperial College Business School and New York University.

Lorimer announced that he would be joining DCMS in a tweet, but said he would be staying quiet until after the general election on 12 December.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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