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Step-change in the Government's approach to data is long overdue

25 September 2019

The Public Accounts Committee report says that a long-standing failure to improve the quality of data in government leads to inadequate services and poor decision-making.


Poor data in government is a perennial handicap

Poor quality data in government leads to failings in services provided, poor decision-making and an inability to understand how best to improve. Issues with data come up in many of this Committee's reports. Over many years government has increased its use of technology and data. However, departments have been left to develop their own processes for managing data, leading to inconsistency across government. Data has not been treated as a valuable asset, so it has become normal to ‘work around' poor-quality, disorganised data. A step-change in the government's approach to data is long overdue.

Central leadership needed to achieve improvements

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has announced that it will produce yet another data strategy. But previous initiatives to improve the use of data across government have not delivered the benefits promised. The government has barely scratched the surface of what it needs to do so it can use data to deliver joined-up public services and increase efficiency.  This will not be a quick or simple task as there are significant challenges. These include a lack of government-wide data standards; ageing IT systems; fragmented leadership; and a civil service culture that does not support sharing data across departmental boundaries. Government must tackle these while upholding the public's trust in how government uses their data. Our experience of other cross-government initiatives tells us that government-wide improvements depend on persistent and firm pressure from the centre of government, or this new strategy will become another missed opportunity.

Conclusions and recommendations

Leadership of initiatives to improve data is fragmented and unclear. It is not clear who is responsible for planning and driving the changes needed to improve government's use of data. DCMS is responsible for data policy and GDS for data standards. The Data Advisory Board is the senior oversight board across government. However, at July 2019, only 2 of 18 people attending the most recent meeting were permanent secretaries, despite these being the core members of the board. In 2017, government committed to appointing a Chief Data Officer by 2020 but has not done so yet. The Cabinet Office said this is because it wanted ‘conditions for success' in place first. In our view government should appoint a Chief Data Officer before it develops the data strategy so he or she can lead on the strategic direction of data.

Recommendation: As a matter of urgency Cabinet Office and DCMS should appoint a Chief Data Officer for government, to act as a single point of accountability for government's use of data.

DCMS and Cabinet Office have made little progress in developing the data strategy since they announced it over a year ago. In June 2018, the Secretary of State for DCMS announced that the UK government would develop a national data strategy to ‘unlock the power of data across government and the wider economy'. DCMS issued a preliminary ‘open call for evidence' on 10 June 2019 – a year after it announced the national data strategy. It plans a public consultation for autumn 2019. DCMS committed to publishing the national data strategy in the ‘course of next year' but would not tie itself to more specific timescales. We remain sceptical the strategy will make inroads into improving government's use of data or that government has a clear plan on how to do this or who has responsibility.

Recommendation: The Cabinet Office should write to us by the 31 March 2020 setting out how the government plans to improve its use of data; including priorities, milestones and accountabilities.

Rather than mandating an approach to good data use and sharing, DCMS and Cabinet Office are relying on winning the ‘hearts and minds' of other departments. This is an approach that has failed in the past. We have seen many times that working together across departments is difficult, largely due to departmental funding, accountability and a culture of working within departments' boundaries. Central departments such as the Cabinet Office have an important role identifying and seeing through changes that are beneficial for government as a whole. Similar central government initiatives such as Shared Service Centres and Verify have failed in the past due to inadequate buy-in from departments. DCMS has not thought through how to get departments on board to fulfil the data strategy. It will need continued and sustained pressure from Cabinet Office and DCMS if government is to use data more efficiently and effectively. If this is left to individual departments to do voluntarily, it is likely to be squeezed out by other priorities.

Recommendation: The Cabinet Office and DCMS should check progress against their plans to improve government's use of data and review the merits of mandating a consistent approach. They should make sure that the strategy builds in ways to monitor compliance and the Chief Data Officer should hold departments to account.

The Cabinet Office has not developed a useful set of standards to support effective use of data across government. It is difficult and expensive to bring data together without consistent ways of recording and presenting data. For example, there are over 20 ways of identifying individuals and businesses across government, with departments using many different reference numbers for the same organisation or person. The Cabinet Office sees data standards as the way forward but is behind in setting them and has not agreed a plan for them across government. GDS has approved only 16 data standards thus far. The Cabinet Office told us that these cover ‘obscure' subjects, and they do not, for example, include fundamentals such as consistent ways of recording individuals' names. Like so many cross-government initiatives, there is no mandate across government to comply with data standards.

Recommendation: The Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service should identify and prioritise the top 10 data standards that would benefit government. It should specify their use in new systems from 1 April 2020 and monitor implementation by departments.

Ageing IT systems across government make it difficult for it to use data effectively and efficiently. Ageing IT systems make extracting data expensive and sometimes impossible; whether for use within a department or for sharing with others. We have seen numerous projects where the importance of good quality data for monitoring progress of the programmes and policies they systems were intended to support was an afterthought. For example, in our report on Universal Credit (October 2018) we found that the Department for Work and pensions could not assess how it treated vulnerable claimants as its systems did not allow this. Replacing or modifying government's systems will take time and be costly and needs careful planning. We were surprised that the government does not have a list of its ageing IT systems on which to base its strategy. Government needs to get its own house in order – to understand its ageing IT systems and the problems with them – before it can hope to take advantage of the opportunities from using and sharing data better.

Recommendation: The Cabinet Office and DCMS should identify the main ageing IT systems that, if fixed, would allow government to use data better. They should ensure that whenever departments replace or modify these systems this is done with full consideration of how the systems will support better use of data in government.

Government officials' concerns about protecting data can stand in the way of using it to coordinate services. Preserving public trust is a precondition for government to use data more effectively and it is right that officials are concerned about data protection. Departmental cultures can also discourage data sharing as civil servants are not used to working across departmental boundaries. DCMS's work includes helping departments to use data ethically while also using data in new ways. Its Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is part of this. The Digital Economy Act 2017 (the Act) has made gaining parliamentary approval to share data between departments or with external bodies easier but it is still quite new. DCMS's efforts to increase awareness of the Act have had limited impact so far. There were 36 agreements under the new Act by July 2019, mostly aimed at reducing fraud and error and fuel poverty with slower progress in other areas. Front-line staff are afraid of making mistakes and do not always have the operational guidance they need to give them confidence and knowledge of when and how to share data appropriately.

Recommendation: DCMS should review departments' data-sharing guidance and standard operating processes; and report how well they support the wider use of data alongside data protection by 30 June 2020.

Further information

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