Empire building in government - data power given back to Cabinet Office under Prime Minister’s orders

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 23, 2020
Back in 2018 it was revealed that data policy would be taken away from the Cabinet Office and given to DCMS. It’s now going back to the centre of government.

Image of Dominic Cummings

With a feeling of déjà vu, it was quietly announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week - just as Parliament was packing up for it's summer recess - that responsibility for data policy is being transferred out of the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and back into the hands of the Cabinet Office.

The Prime Minister said:

Responsibility for government use of data has transferred from the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Cabinet Office. DCMS will retain responsibility for data policy for the economy and society. This change will help ensure that government data is used most effectively to drive policy making and service delivery. The change is effective immediately.

For those with good memories, a similar move was carried out by Prime Minister Theresa May back in April 2018, where she quietly announced before the Easter recess that the data function would be taken away from the centre of government and put into the hands of DCMS.

At the time, we lambasted the decision, arguing that influential figures within DCMS were simply empire building, rather than trying to make Whitehall function better. Former Government Digital Service (GDS) Chief Mike Bracken also said at the time that separating data policy from the digital and technology functions would make government harder to reform.

With that in mind, it would be hypocritical to criticise the decision to bring data back into the heart of Whitehall. But plenty of criticism is expected, given the concerns about the role of the Prime Minister's senior aide Dominic Cummings - particularly when you're talking about oversight of some of the nation's most highly sensitive data.

And this concern may be entirely valid given Cummings' role in the Brexit referendum, where his Vote Leave campaign used sophisticated data analysis techniques to target voters. Whilst much has been written on this and there are clearly two viewpoints on Cummings' ethics - what's clear is that the man that now has the ear of the Prime Minister has a firm understanding of how to use data to influence and establish power.

However, with that being said, we can't pick and choose what we believe is the best operational model for the mechanics of Whitehall and running the country depending on who is in power. If a different party or leader was in place, I can guarantee that much of the criticism being thrown towards this decision would not be happening. In fact it would be praised in many quarters.

And that's because it does still make sense to have technology, digital and data closely aligned. The centre of government *should* be setting standards, establishing effective data models, implementing spend controls and trying to rid the departmentalised mindset that has resulted in fragmentation and silos for decades.

I always like to remind people that if we had the opportunity to rebuild Whitehall from the ground up in this digital age, would it look like it currently does? I'd wager a strong bet that it wouldn't. Too many departments share responsibilities throughout important moments in a citizen's life, but this departmental mindset and institutional silos limit the ability to create well-rounded, proficient services.

Data clearly sits at the centre of effective service delivery and has long been overlooked by those in power. A much better data infrastructure is needed in government. But there's a growing understanding by those at the top - across the political spectrum - that data is going to play a huge role in effective government reform.

By way of background, the Cabinet Office also recently revealed that it is building a No10 Analytical Unit, which will essentially be a data science team responsible for helping to drive change across Whitehall and advising the Prime Minister "with acute judgement". In addition to this, there is a much delayed National Data Strategy that is due for publication this year, which aims to "drive the collective vision that will support the UK to build a world-leading data economy".

In other words, momentum around data use in government is building rapidly.

But...scrutiny is needed

Whilst bringing data back into the Cabinet Office to align with technology and digital is potentially an operationally smart decision - this does come with some huge caveats. As noted above, Whitehall needs to be effective no matter who is in power.

And I think the concern about data policy coming under the control of Cummings and the Prime Minister is that there will be little insight into what is happening with data use across Whitehall. Don't be tricked by terms such as ‘anonymised data', which is rolled out every time a controversial data project is attempted in government. Studies have shown anonymised data is only effective to a certain point and can be linked to establish identities.

So, whilst bringing data back into the Cabinet Office is potentially a positive move - it needs to be done with the highest level of transparency, with effective governance structures in place, with public participation to gain trust and with high levels of control given to users.

Cummings and Johnson carrying out dark data tricks behind closed doors and pushing through influential policies unbeknownst to the public is a huge concern and those close to these projects (as well as the media and parliamentarians) need to hold them to account.

With Johnson's strong majority in Parliament and the next election years away, as well as Cummings seemingly adapting the Civil Service leadership to his world view, there is a risk that dangerous standards will be set for decades to come.

The risk is - as with the Brexit referendum - is that data use can be complicated and the opportunities it presents are almost unfathomable to the public until it is too late.

My take

Government data is effectively our data. It's use can't be hidden behind closed doors by those in ivory towers who think they know better. Demands need to be made for transparency, governance and control in order for the government to get the public on board. Trust is key.