Main content

Does Brexit Britain have a data strategy fit for purpose? - the public sector perspective

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton March 10, 2020
Chris Middleton went to the Westminster eForum on the UK’s National Data Strategy to find out what it is, but came away shocked and disappointed. Does the British government have any idea what it is doing?

Image of a keyboard with the word brexit on it

Every organisation now exists in a universe of data; indeed, some theoretical physicists now believe that the universe itself – every galaxy, star, and planet – is constructed from data. (That dog, table, or person you like? They’re all made of maths!)

The UK economy is 81% services-based and so runs on data too – with a trifling 75% of its international flows heading to and from the European Union (Brexit impacts? Pah!). So you would expect the National Data Strategy to be up there with the Industrial Strategy in terms of clarity, ambition, inspirational message, and stated purpose. But it isn’t. At the time of writing, it’s missing in action.

The difficulties of trying to pull together data across Whitehall alone are legion, explained Rt Hon the Lord Wallace of Saltaire, LibDem spokesman to the Cabinet Office, chairing the opening session at the Westminster eForum on the National Data Strategy. He added: 

I am more and more struck by the gap between an uninformed and rather sceptical public, and what needs to go on inside government. It also seems to me that a lot of people, including many politicians, are much more sceptical and suspicious about public data sharing than they are about private data sharing.

Meanwhile, I still hear colleagues in the Lords talking about identity in terms of ID cards, not understanding how far we should have moved.

Indeed. The public may be suspicious – or simply unenthusiastic about data projects, as my previous eForum report explored – but they are not always uninformed. Often they are simply cowed by endless stories of unscrupulous social platforms and surveillance-obsessed governments. 

Tabloid scaremongering aside, their fears must be grounded in at least some reality, or GDPR and the California Consumer Protection Act wouldn’t exist – and Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t spend so much of his time looking like a rabbit in the headlights of a Mack Truck. 

So can the UK government fare any better than the organisations covered in my previous report? Fortunately, delegates had the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) to guide them. They turned their expectant faces to its Head of Data Strategy, Gaia Marcus, with pencils poised to record the National Strategy in bold letters. It was a forlorn hope.

After a long preamble in which Marcus explained that Brexit preparations had put the Strategy on hold, while multiple General Elections had put it on hold some more (cue laughter from the room, as if any of this was funny), she said:

As you can imagine, we're not quite where we thought we'd be this time last year when we agreed then to do a speech, and today I am opening another speech by saying, as you can imagine, we're not exactly where we thought we would be when we agreed to speak to you in March 2020.

Inspiring stuff. It’s almost as if the internal party-politics of this administration are getting in the way of vital work for the country. She continued: 

I thought I’d give you a bit of history of what we've done and then kind of where we're going. So, the prehistory of this space is that four Secretaries of State ago – not that anyone's counting – we announced our attention in June 2018 to unlock the power of data for the government and the wider economy while building systems of trust in its use. 

That's the first time that there's been one government department with responsibility for data policy, both in government and the wider economy. That brings its own complexities, but it's also, I think, a source of massive power and scope.

To paraphrase Spider-Man (who could at least claim to be a web crawler), you would hope that with massive power and scope comes massive responsibility – or at least a pinch of clarity. 

Yet after taking a swipe at the EU over its own statement on data strategy – Marcus appeared to suggest that it was suspiciously close to what the UK has been planning (evidence?) – and after making the obligatory claim that Britain is leading the world in [insert random tech space here], she said:

We exited the first phase of the strategy with a very clear steer that across government and our wider stakeholders there was an appetite for a data strategy, but no one could quite agree on what that would be. We knew that we had the solution, but we weren't clear on the problem. 

So, back in the Middle Ages of this project, when the team was focusing on the work, I commissioned a call for evidence to actually understand that, if we've all agreed that the national strategy is the solution to a problem, what actually is the problem?

Peak idiocy?

If your brain isn’t reeling at this point, then you haven’t been paying attention. This was the UK’s head of data strategy saying that the National Data Strategy (whatever it is) is being conceived as the right solution to a completely unknown problem, which is as far from good project management as it’s possible to get.

She was also claiming that the EU – which the UK has just left and which has the clear, ambitious, and specific aim of creating a single, integrated data market – is somehow so inspired by the UK’s world-beating example of disagreeing with it, that it is now copying its ideas. 

Meanwhile, she was admitting that Whitehall has done little constructive for two years in terms of working out what the strategy actually is because of having more important party business to attend to. Just when you think that the nation has reached peak idiocy, another Everest comes into view.

So does the UK now have any idea of what problems its missing Data Strategy is designed to solve, if and when it finally appears (which is later this year, supposedly)? According to Marcus, the strategy will be built on three broad pillars: people, economy, and government. I think we can file that under ‘obvious’. She then added:

We asked how one uses a data strategy to ensure that everyone participates in a data-driven economy, to ensure that people know the trade-offs. [...] How do we ensure the data-driven economy is one that all businesses and nonprofits can participate in? How do we ensure that we are levelling up, as I think we would now say, UK PLC as a whole to take advantage of the data economy and government? 

How do we ensure that government is doing the right things for the data it holds? How do we ensure that government is keeping up to date with the curve and has access to the right skills and expertise to actually use the data that it holds? And how do we ensure the government is setting the right conditions today for its use across the economy, alongside the call for evidence?

Excellent questions. How indeed! But no answers were forthcoming – though anyone playing Brexit Bingo will be shouting Full House (levelling up? Tick. Leading the world? Tick. EU inspired by what the UK is doing? Tick...). 

Data as a strategic asset - or not as the case may be...

However, Marcus was clear that the Strategy must: articulate a 10-year vision that ensures data is fit for purpose via findable, usable, and reusable standards; set out the talent and skills needed to exploit it; and provide frameworks and incentives for data to flow usefully through the economy. It’s just the detail that’s missing.

A counterpoint to Marcus’ determination to set out the questions rather than the answers came from Sian Jones, Director of Cross-Government Value for Money at the National Audit Office (she must be busy!). 

In her view, the government does not treat data as a strategic asset, no single department leads on data improvements across government – not even DCMS, apparently – and funding pressures can inhibit progress on data projects.

At the same time, data quality is often inadequate, the lack of standards across government has led to inconsistent ways of recording the same information, and legacy systems often work only for the policy they were built to deliver. As a result, inefficiencies are normalised, data can’t be shared within some departments, and making poor data the ‘new normal’ carries hidden business costs.

And that’s not all. More often than not, government’s use of data is only shaped by the need to keep it secure, and while Whitehall has put legislation in place to make sharing easier, its historical ways of working can inhibit progress.

That’s quite a list of broken processes. As the view of the organisation whose job is holding the government to account, her criticisms suggest that the National Data Strategy’s real aims may have more to do with cost savings and delivering value for money than forging a bold vision to rival the EU’s. In short, it’s arranging the deckchairs rather than launching the ship – or revealing where it’s sailing.

Among the other speakers were Kirsty Innes, Head of Tech and Economy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change – an organisation with built-in obsolescence if ever there was one – who said that government needs to be, hey, a convener of viewpoints in a world that changes too fast for monolithic policies. She added that decentralisation creates more responsive and efficient policymaking. All good points that are, alas, being torn to shreds by the coronavirus.

Trust is key

It fell to Javier Ruiz Diaz, Policy Director of the Open Rights Group, to be both openly European in a room full of Whitehall policy wonks (brave man) and another voice of common sense. He cautioned delegates that if the UK or anyone else really wants to innovate on data, then public trust is essential – the implication being that the government has a long journey ahead of it to gain that trust.

The right to privacy is the cornerstone of Europe’s approach to data, he explained, expressing the hope that the UK will continue to support a rights-based model. However, he lamented that the immigration exemption has become a focus of GDPR for the UK, saying that this is the wrong application of data regulations. Being able to grant narrow exemptions is important, but overreaching with exemptions that are broad and politically motivated is a mistake.

But that is not to say that European data policy is perfect – far from it, he suggested: we have the right to data portability, but no one has been able to make it work because there are huge problems with interoperability that need concerted action to solve.

More, talking about data ethics has become a substitute for regulation, he claimed – a comment that may have been aimed at those US software giants that express support for not being evil, see privacy as an inalienable right, and so on, and yet seem determined to stymie a federal solution.

My take

This was another eForum at which government spokespeople were apparently briefed to say little that was concrete or useful, while setting out questions that delegates would have preferred to hear answered. 

While this has long been a theme at events to some degree, giving voice to questions while not giving any answers now seems to be the order of the day for this government. It is hard to see how any of this can inspire the confidence needed to make a national data strategy work – assuming that one ever appears.

If the UK is genuinely to become a world leader in data and/or Industry 4.0, then it had better start setting out its vision quickly, before people lose patience with the endless bluster and prevarication. Because at some point its current approach will stop looking like a holding pattern and start resembling rank incompetence.

A grey colored placeholder image