Civil society groups warn government on data failings - “stop choosing ignorance”

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 16, 2019
In an open letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the civil society groups want government to take data strategy seriously.

Image of a pile of paper and data

The British government has long been talking up the opportunity of public sector data and the role it could play in transforming services, enhancing the relationship between the citizen and the state. The idea of canonical data registers to underpin a Government-as-a-Platform approach, to help break down the silos of Whitehall, has been the theoretical ‘strategy’ for a while now. 

However, in practice, progress has been slow, with little ambition driving the agenda from the top. This has been further confused by the move of data policy control away from the centre, out of GDS’s hands, and into the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Today - recognising an opportunity presented by the upcoming release of the National Data Strategy and the imminent Spending Review - a number of prominent Civil Society groups have come together to present an open letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to urge action on the government’s flailing approach to data. 

The groups - some of which include the Open Data Institute, mySociety, Institute for Government and Full Fact - wrote to Jeremy Wright and said: 

Better use of data across the public, private and third sectors will help people across the country hold government to account, give them confidence that they are using trustworthy services, and allow them to make decisions that improve their local communities. 

Moreover, it will create new organisations and increase productivity and innovation in existing ones.

We believe the National Data Strategy, allied with the forthcoming Spending Review, provides an opportunity for the government to set out a long-term ambition for how it will transform the UK's use of data.

What needs to be done

The groups involved state that better use of data is key to better government and a better society, but highlight a recent National Audit Office report, which states that “despite years of effort and many well-documented failures, government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data”. 

As such, the letter adds, the UK risks falling behind other countries over the next decade and never being able to catch up. 

The letter outlines a number of issues that they groups believe the upcoming National Data Strategy should address. These include: 

  • Getting leadership from the very top to be at the forefront of the National Data Strategy - including the Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary and Chief Executive of the Civil Service. The groups notes that “too often, at present, different departments have conflicting values and incentives which prevent data being used for the public benefit”. 

  • The National Data Strategy must deliver transformative, not incremental change. It will need to be a long term project, with a “vision for at least the next ten years and practical steps for turning that ambition into a reality”. 

  • Government must “stop choosing ignorance” by failing to invest in the data that would help it better understand its own operations, the effectiveness of its policies, the quality of public services and key facts about its population and the economy. It argues that the National Data Strategy should create an expectation of evidence by default and data-design government. 

  • The government must invest in skills to convert the growing amount of data into real information that can be acted upon, and which allows policymakers to understand uncertainty in the data. 

  • There must be a mechanism for decision-makers, data users and the public to be involved in the National Data Strategy and on an ongoing basis. 

  • Government needs to ‘fix the plumbing’ and sort out its data infrastructure, including the use of unique open identifiers. 

  • Government needs to earn the public’s trust, including a proper debate and discussion around the appropriate extent of using citizens’ data within government. 

The open letter concludes by stating: 

The National Data Strategy must go beyond public services. Government's role is broader than the delivery of public services; it can help shape how data is used across the whole of society through interventions such as research funding, procurement rules, regulatory activities and legislation. The strategy must recognise this and describe how government will make data work for everyone in the UK.