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UK reboots data strategy with focus on economy and services

26 January 2021: The UK Cabinet Office’s new digital leadership team has a unique opportunity to deliver truly data-driven government, ICAEW experts have said, stressing the need for urgency following several years of delay.

Paul Willmott, the founder of McKinsey Digital at McKinsey & Co, is to be chairman of the new central digital and data office (CDDO), with Joanna Davinson, currently chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office, serving as executive director. Tom Read, former chief technology officer at the Cabinet Office, is the CDDO chief executive. 

They will be responsible for shaping and delivering the government’s plan to overhaul legacy IT systems, strengthen cybersecurity and improve capability, alongside the Civil Service Digital, Data and Technology(CSDDT) unit. 

Both bodies will also be charged with ensuring the government can better leverage data and emerging technologies to improve public services and the economy. 

“As the country looks ahead to new opportunities, including tackling coronavirus and rebuilding our economy, the Civil Service Digital, Data and Technology function will be integral to its success and these appointments will strengthen the leadership, power and presence in this critical area,” the government said in a statement.

The CDDO will officially launch in early February.

Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer of the Cabinet Office, said the CDDO will advise ministers, work with HM Treasury to fund of digital initiatives, provide leadership for the rest of government in the field, and work with the Government Commercial Function and Crown Commercial Services to reform technology procurement.

Urgency and commitment needed

A report by the report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in 2019 said the government’s data strategy had “lost its way” despite having potential to transform the relationship between the citizen and the state, save money and make public services more efficient and agile.

After multiple false starts, including a three-year search to appoint a permanent secretary-level Government Chief Digital Officer, the government has finally signalled its intent to modernise and reform its data offering. 

Top of the CDDO in-tray will be the UK’s rebooted National Data Strategy, which builds on a manifesto pledge to improve data use in government, and to consider ways to help businesses of all sizes benefit from the ‘data revolution’. It forms part of the government’s wider vision for a “thriving, fast-growing digital sector in the UK, underpinned by public trust”.

ICAEW responded to the consultation on the National Data Strategy by backing the plan to realise the benefits of using AI and automation in digitised processes but said implementation needed to be faster.

“Many of the issues highlighted by the strategy – such as skills, access to data and data quality – are long-standing issues which have not to date been addressed adequately by government despite previous initiatives,” the ICAEW response said. “As a result, the government needs to show urgency and commitment to delivering change in practice.” 

While the UK is the largest data market in the UK in terms of money made from products and services derived from digitised data, the US and China are much more advanced markets in terms of venture capital investment.

The international data space is hugely competitive, and other nations are investing heavily in their data and tech sectors. There is also evidence of barriers to efficient data use in the UK that the strategy aims to overcome, experts have said. 

No quick fix

Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW has long championed better use of data to benefit the economy, public services and people’s lives, and she believes chartered accountants have a window now to influence government thinking while the new team is settling in.

“There is so much data available in government that can help businesses make better decisions, and provide stronger, evidence-based policy, but now is the time to act,” she told ICAEW Insights. “It will take investment and time, but the pay-off will be enormously beneficial for businesses. Given how fast things have moved, particularly in the last year, these are situations where if you have good data you can keep up with fast-moving issues.”

The ICAEW’s technology experts have also been a prominent voice in the discussion around the importance of strong data foundations across government, and the formulation of standards to reduce errors and improve efficiencies. 

“This is not stuff that can be quickly fixed – we talk about these kinds of issues with members in large business, for example, and we can see the amount of time, discipline and unglamorous work that goes into building these foundations, but it is essential,” said Kirstin Gillon ICAEW Technical Manager in the Tech Faculty. 

The Tech Faculty has also repeatedly highlighted the links between data and wider digitisation initiatives. 

“Data doesn’t come out of the sky, it comes from systems and processes and therefore successful digital transformation will provide better data to work with,” said Gillon. “Typically, this will be from more modern systems with more automation and integration, which should improve the quality and timeliness of data.”