William Priest, Chief Executive, Geospatial Commission, UK: Exclusive Interview

By on 15/10/2018 | Updated on 06/08/2019
William Priest, chief executive, Geospatial Commission, UK

Geospatial data could strengthen public service delivery and business growth – but whilst most governments hold vast datasets, few are realising their potential. Matt Ross meets William Priest, charged with delivering a strategy to revolutionise the UK’s management of geospatial information

“We have a free rein to think about how we achieve our outcomes, and to come up with options and scenarios. And I’ve told my team that we want to be bold,” says William Priest. “Hopefully, that’s one of the reasons they wanted someone like me doing the job. I’m from the private sector and relatively new to central government, but I can see both sides of the fence.”

The job in question is that of chief executive of the Geospatial Commission – and in this new role, announced by the UK chancellor at last year’s Budget, Priest is charged with creating and delivering a cross-government strategy covering all public data with a geographic component.

The UK ranks number two in the global Geospatial Readiness Index; but the government believes that stronger, more coherent policymaking could boost economic growth by £11bn ($14.5bn). “There’s a job to do in terms of leveraging the existing data; expanding the data we’re collecting; and, most importantly, in making it more readily available,” Priest comments. His commission must devise, agree and implement a plan that improves the access to, links between and quality of the UK’s geospatial datasets, set within a new policy, regulatory and accountability framework.

The goals

Priest, a former telecoms and IT businessman, has spent long enough on Whitehall to recognise the difficulty of corralling agencies across government into a common approach: he first joined government as a commercial adviser in 2015, and spent last year running the national roll-out of broadband. But the potential rewards, he believes, vastly outweigh the challenges.

In public service delivery, for example, bringing together different datasets could help identify social, environmental or economic changes, or improve the targeting of public services. “Can we predict floods more effectively by working with the Met Office and the Environment Agency?” he asks. “There’s whole rafts of public services that we could optimise”.

For the business world, better geospatial data could improve efficiency and support new services – particularly in industries such as infrastructure, telecoms, logistics, retail and, of course, digital. By helping relevant companies to improve their “access to capital, markets, skills and capability”, Priest hopes to stimulate “geovation – innovation in geospatial technologies.” His brief focuses on the potential benefits to SMEs; but as he points out, “if we get it right, it should enhance both big and small companies.”

The role

Ministers often create commissions to make recommendations on thorny policy issues, then take back control of delivery. But the Geospatial Commission, says Priest, is in the “pretty unique position where I can not only define policy and strategy, but also drive implementation.” Whilst execution will lie with the creators and users of geospatial data – particularly six key government agencies, working in fields such as mapping, geology and land ownership – the Cabinet Office-based commission has been tasked with holding them to account for delivery.

As well as those agencies, the commission will work with departments using geospatial data: it’s taking over the management of various contracts, such as an aerial photography deal previously held by the environment department. And Priest has the cash to fund his plans: with £80m ($105m) to spend over two years, he’ll be able to lubricate the wheels of government – covering capital costs and foregone data charges, for example.

Much of the commission’s work, Priest explains, will focus on addressing the three key barriers to better use of geospatial data. One is accessibility: the ease with which public and private bodies can download and deploy accurate, high-quality information. Then there’s interoperability – applying common standards, formats and nomenclature so that different datasets work together. Third comes ‘open’ data: giving away information for free, in the pursuit of public and economic benefits.

The first two of these are largely technical issues – albeit substantial ones. But the third presents a challenge to the business model of many public geospatial bodies, which are established as trading funds and expected to maximise revenues by selling access to their hard-won assets.

The funding

In the short term, Priest explains, the commission is using some of its cash to fund the free publication of more data. Take Mastermap: Ordnance Survey’s (OS’s) treasure trove of layered geographic data forms a key pillar of many geospatial applications – but as he points out, “the more we ask Ordnance Survey to give away, the more it dilutes their commercial model.” So the commission and OS have set up a joint steering group, with the goal of presenting HM Treasury with the business case for giving away more Mastermap data.

To sweeten the pill, the commission will help cover the resulting “revenue erosion” – giving OS “the certainty and the time they need to continue on their transformative journey,” comments Priest. “We won’t fund all of the revenue erosion, but a good proportion of it.”

Meanwhile, Priest is also funding work by government’s six key geospatial agencies to address those technical obstacles. Here, the goal is to enable “the existing producers of that data to collaborate more effectively,” he explains. “We want to take away some of the barriers so it can be shared and more accessible.” The first tranche of such funding was announced earlier this month, handing the agencies £5m ($6.5m) to spend on accessibility, interoperability and data quality projects.

The third spending priority, says Priest, is to support projects with the private sector – incubating geotech start-ups, and helping businesses to develop the skills and technologies required to use geospatial data “more effectively across their value and supply chains.”

“We have a free rein to think about how we achieve our outcomes, and to come up with options and scenarios. And I’ve told my team that we want to be bold”

Levers and solutions

Whilst the money will ease the process of change, however, the commission’s real role is to decide the changes that are required. Such as? “Inequality of standards is one of the barriers in terms of effective data usage, so we’ll be looking at what data standards we need to promote and accelerate,” he replies. He’ll also contemplate regulation: “It’d rather stimulate the market through other levers, but regulation is a possibility.”

Then there’s structural change. “We have six individual bodies tasked with producing geospatial information,” he says. “Should they come together? Should they all be part of the commission? I’ve an open mind; but there are some structural changes that we’ll consider”.

On a recent trip to Singapore, Priest found its approach to data management “inspirational”. The city-state has merged its mapping and land ownership agencies into a Singapore Land Authority (SLA), he notes, bringing together “the value chain from land title through to location. That was mooted a couple of years ago in the UK, and it’s something we’ll potentially revisit.”

Singapore then designated the SLA as “a virtual, end-to-end commission for all geospatial data: a single source of geospatial truth,” notes Priest. “So they haven’t structurally brought marine and hydrographic and earth observation together, but all geospatial data goes in and out [of government bodies] through the Singapore Land Authority. They make sure that the data is clean and accurate and to a common standard.”

The commission will consider whether the UK should create a single geospatial data platform or hub, he adds – but the Singapore model achieves his core goals around accessibility and interoperability. “I will probably replicate something like that,” he says. “I think that’s a really, really good model.”

Building the strategy

The commission is currently consulting on the way forward – its call for evidence closes on 24 October – whilst Priest gets the word out across government: in February he’ll speak at Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2019 international conference. Meanwhile, government is recruiting five geospatial commissioners: along with Priest, a chair and two representatives of the geospatial agencies – and overseen by a Ministerial Steering Group chaired by Cabinet Office minister David Lidington – they’ll be charged with creating an annual plan and a five-year strategy.

In building these plans, Priest emphasises, he’ll work closely with all interested parties. “At the heart of my approach is collaboration,” he says – not just with the geospatial agencies, but with local authorities, relevant departments and private businesses. “It’s a fairly complex array of stakeholders,” he comments. “I’m not going to spring any surprises on anybody; I want to bring everybody along with us.”

Nonetheless, he adds, “I’m not belittling the challenge of getting uniform agreement to making one or two radical changes”. Priest’s difficulty here is that the geospatial agencies are controlled by various departments: the UK Hydrographic Office is run by the Ministry of Defence, for example; the Valuation Office Agency by HM Revenue and Customs; and the Coal Authority by the business department. Those departments will be wary of any reforms that relax their control over agencies for which they remain accountable, compromise agencies’ routine data work, or threaten to push up net costs.

“At the heart of my approach is collaboration,” says Priest – not just with the geospatial agencies, but with local authorities, relevant departments and private businesses. “It’s a fairly complex array of stakeholders…I’m not going to spring any surprises on anybody; I want to bring everybody along with us.”

Fragmentation and coherence

And that’s not the full extent of the complexities facing Priest. For in April, the prime minister abruptly passed responsibility for data policy and governance from the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service to the culture department, DCMS, which oversees the digital industries and is now developing a National Data Strategy. Given that the Cabinet Office owns neither data policy nor the geospatial agencies, why is it hosting the commission?

DCMS owns “the external-facing digital and data policy,” Priest acknowledges, “and we’re working very closely with DCMS policymakers to fit into the National Data Strategy.” But given that geospatial data is held and used across government, “it was felt by Number 10, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office that, at least for the foreseeable future, because of the complexity of sorting out this policy [and] rationalising the ecosystem, instead of putting it in one department it would be better to be at the heart of government so I can take a view looking outwards… We’re at the heart, and the spokes are the departments.”

This raises the question of whether data policy should have been moved to DCMS in the first place; Priest, understandably, declines to comment. And so to a second thorny question. In 2009, then-PM Gordon Brown mounted a similar drive to rationalise and improve data management across government; but issues around funding and control blocked substantive progress. What’s different this time?

Brown’s agenda fell with his government in 2010; and as Priest acknowledges, “there may be political change in the next year.” But within the current government, he argues, “there is political unanimity behind the policy of more open, more accessible, more interoperable geospatial data. There’s a recognition that it’s fundamentally important to building a smarter nation and a smarter government.”

The commission’s funding is also new, he adds, “and the other thing that’s different is the appetite from the ecosystem. There’s huge positivity about this, both in the private and public sectors.”

Given clear leadership and a collaborative approach from the Geospatial Commission, he believes that the time is right for substantive reforms – and he wants to be bold. “If we’re just another layer of bureaucracy, we won’t have succeeded. We need to have an impact and show significant change,” he concludes. “And right now, there’s an open door to make this happen.”

Global Government Forum: Five Thoughts for Better Government

William Priest on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Priest’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“We were in Singapore last week, and a couple of years ago they combined two of the major producers of geospatial information – the equivalent of Ordnance Survey, producing digital land information, and Land Registry – into a single body called the Singapore Land Authority. That gives them the ability to produce and use core aspects of geospatial data and information really effectively, and it’s something that in the UK – when we build our UK geospatial strategy next year – we’ll have a look at: how we can unify some of the datasets”.

And are there any projects or innovations from this country that you think would be valuable to your peers overseas?

“Again, I’ll use Singapore. A couple of years ago, Ordnance Survey and Land Registry created a Geovation hub – which is about stimulating geospatial technology growth and innovation. In July Singapore opened GeoWorks, which is very similar: it’s a number of start-up entities part-funded by the Singapore Land Authority. We had a great half day with them and saw some of the practical examples of new geospatial technology that Singapore is now deploying. That is an idea that we exported to Singapore; so we’re learning and cross-fertilising ideas all the time.”

And how can we improve ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“One action I’ve taken away from my trip last week is to reach out to my counterparts in other countries, such as the US, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand. We can create a virtual geospatial global commission, and I think other policy leaders in other areas could do the same: reach out to peers and counterparts, create a digital forum and digital policy groups, share ideas, and then find ways to get together physically with one or more of one’s counterparts.

“I found it very powerful and very inspiring last week. We can all learn a great deal from other’s experiences.”

What are the biggest global challenges within this field over the next few years?

“Data is such a key element of the new industrial revolution. We talk about the industrial revolution 4.0, which is all about connecting more people, places and businesses so that we can drive out some of the new applications and services that we are all beginning to hear about: the Internet of Things, automated vehicles, telemedicine – the list goes on.

“So I think the biggest challenge is around awareness and adoption. We already have huge amounts of data: it’s about making that available to end users – be they public or private sector – and using it more effectively. In the few months I’ve been in the UK Geospatial Commission, I’ve seen many areas where we can both share existing information more effectively, and adopt that information more effectively. So awareness of what we’ve got, and adopting the usage of existing geospatial datasets.”

And finally, what’s your favourite book?

“I was very much inspired, growing up, by George Orwell – so I would probably say anything by George Orwell. 1984 is probably the most famous one; I personally like the Road to Wigan Pier. I find it a book I go back to quite a lot.

“On a lighter note, anything by Raymond Chandler – a crime thriller writer in 1930s America. I do like a good crime thriller!”

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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