Civil Service chief details govt's data ambitions - but where’s the leadership?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 18, 2017
John Manzoni claims that the government is going to “seize this opportunity”, but questions remain about the commitment.

The Civil Service’s chief executive, John Manzoni, has this week released a blog post outlining the importance of data as it relates to the creation of modern, digital public services. However, despite the claims, there remains questions regarding the government’s leadership and strategy in this area.

The government has previously stated the importance of data to its Government-as-a-Platform strategy, which aims to build common services that can be used across the public sector. For example, Verify is intended for all citizens to use as an identity assurance service that can be used to access government services - as opposed to each service having its own identity management scheme.

However, this requires government to sort out its data, organising it so that it’s authoritative, shareable and useable. At the moment much of the data in Whitehall and beyond is disorganised, siloed and there aren’t clear rules on how it can be used.

Some moves have been made by the Government Digital Service (GDS), and other departments, to rectify this through the creation of registers - canonical lists of data that are meant to serve as a definitive sources of truth for whatever they describe.

For example, registers are being created for data on territories, schools and local authorities.

However, since the latter part of last year, the government’s digital strategy has been held in limbo. We were promised a digital/transformation strategy by the end of December, but this got pulled at the last minute by the Prime Minister’s office and there has been no indication about when a new one will be released.

Furthermore, the government’s former director of data, Paul Maltby, left his role at the end of last year. Maltby’s contract came to an end and it is thought that Manzoni is on the hunt for a new data tzar. However, at the moment, there is no single person heading up the data agenda in government.

Having said that, I was pointed to the government’s data steering group, which is a collective of senior officials from across the government and the private sector, whom are responsible for reviewing the data programme in the public sector and making sure that it is aligned to the stated goals.

However, despite this group doing necessary work, it can’t be denied that the data agenda is currently lacking some leadership and top level commitments.

Manzoni’s agenda

Given the lack of direction from the government at present around its data activities (and to be clear, I’m talking about the Cabinet Office, not individual departments’ efforts), Manzoni’s blog post this week is of great interest.

Taking it at face level, it appears that Manzoni is still committed to the data agenda. Whether that translates into budget and strategic commitment down the line remains to be seen, however. That being said, Manzoni’s post is worth taking a look at.

Manzoni begins by saying that government holds “massive amounts of data” and that this data has the potential to transform the way government makes policy and delivers services. He goes as far as to say that “getting data right is the next phase of public service reform”.

The post states that data can help government:

• understand what works and what doesn’t, through data science techniques, enabling government to make better decisions: improving the way government works and saving money
• change the way that citizens interact with government through new better digital services built on reliable data;.
• boost the UK economy by opening and sharing better quality data, in a secure and sensitive way, to stimulate new data-based businesses
• demonstrate a trustworthy approach to data, so citizens know more about the information held about them and how and why it’s being used

Manzoni states that whilst the scale of data in government can be “extremely large”, in practice, machine learning tools will be used to query existing data. He writes:

The reality is that the whole fabric of government is changing as it becomes digital. More and more data is capable of flowing around government and between government and users. There’s now the potential to access vast amounts of data and powerful tools to help us analyse and use it.

Changes needed

However, Manzoni also argues that if government is going to “seize this opportunity”, it needs to make the following changes:

infrastructure - government is introducing developer-friendly open registers of trusted core data, such as countries and local authorities, and better tools to find and access personal data where appropriate through APIs for transformative digital services;
approach - policies will be introduced to get the most out of data for citizens and ensure that government is acting appropriately; new legislation on data access will be introduced to ensure government is doing the right thing – for example, through the data science code of ethics;
data science skills - recruiting more data scientists, developing data science skills across government, and using those skills on transformative projects.

Arrows hitting bullseye on row of targets, sun behind © psdesign1 -
(© psdesign1 -
Finally, Manzoni talks about democratising data analysis in government to create better government services. He says:

Analysis has too often been seen as the preserve of a policy elite; something for ministers and senior boards rather than the life-blood of operational decision-making in government.

And while there has been a steady growth in the use of business intelligence data across operational parts of government, with these new data science tools and techniques we are entering an age when analysis will increasingly be built into new digital services; powering decisions made in the moment by frontline workers.

This is a substantial shift, and one that will lead not only to greater efficiency, but also to a more personalised experience of government for citizens.

My take

Whilst Manzoni’s commitments are welcomed, what we need is a defined strategy and some good leadership. The last data strategy was released in 2013, from what I can see. If we are going to get this right, then we need commitments from the top - in terms of both people and money.