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National Data Strategy is only the start of a conversation

Author: ICAEW

Published: 15 Sep 2020

Making better use of public data could benefit the economy, public services and the quality of peoples’ lives – so can the UK Government’s long-awaited National Data Strategy deliver this? Alison Ring, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW examines the proposals.

Published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on 9 September 2020, the UK Government’s National Data Strategy kicks off a consultation on how better use of public data could help drive economic growth, job opportunities, public services, scientific research, and ultimately a better society.

Back in June 2018, the UK Government promised a strategy to unlock the power of data across government and the wider economy, with responsibility handed to DCMS to develop the best approach. DCMS issued a call for evidence in June 2019, which was followed by 20 roundtables with representatives from over 250 organisations. Now, more than two years after the initial statement, DCMS has published a framework strategy setting out a structured approach to the use of public data in the UK. It aims to “drive the collective vision that will support the UK to build a world-leading data economy”. 

The lead role taken by the DCMS on the National Data Strategy may be surprising to some, given the announcement in July that transferred responsibility for government use of data back to the Cabinet Office. However, the small print in that announcement noted that DCMS retained responsibility for the overall data strategy across the economy, the public sector and society, as part of its digital brief.

Why does the UK need a data strategy? 

Tim Berners Lee said: “Government data is something we have already spent the money on ... and when it is sitting there on a disk in somebody's office it is wasted”.

The benefit of a data strategy is that it sets out the government’s ambition to leverage data for the benefit of all of us and is a commitment to action.

The timeliness and relevance of data are crucial, amongst other uses, to making the right policy decisions – particularly in times of crisis. The past few months have demonstrated some good examples of how data can be used to improve the quality of government decisions but have also highlighted how the lack of joined-up data sharing across government does the opposite. There have also been long-standing criticisms of data being ‘hoarded’ instead of being used to benefit both the economy and society. 

The Government is a voracious acquirer of data and is sometimes validly criticised for asking for too much. However, it also needs the right inputs if it is to make impartial good policy decisions for all members of society. A data strategy will help define what is and is not appropriate to collect, while by making better use of the data it does gather, potentially overcome some of the concerns. 

As our lives have become more dependent on data, the need for a comprehensive data strategy has become more pressing. How can government be joined up in the way data is collected and shared between departments and agencies? Where is the portal where information can be easily deposited with government just once and used by all government departments rather than being collected again and again? Wouldn’t it be good if a company could file financial information in one place and in a streamlined process to provide the governmental users of that data such as HMRC, Companies House, BEIS and the ONS to meet their various responsibilities – with the minimum of pain for those providing the data that is needed?

Better use of data to unlock value

Oliver Dowden, Secretary of States for DCMS, introduces the National Data Strategy as “a framework for the action this government will take on data. It is not the final answer, but part of a conversation about the way that we support the use of data in the UK. We lay out the opportunities that we want to realise, the pillars that we have identified as core to unlocking the power of data for the UK, and the missions that we must prioritise now”.

The document identifies five concrete and significant opportunities for data to positively transform the UK:

  1. Boosting productivity and trade
  2. Supporting new businesses and jobs
  3. Increasing the speed, efficiency and scope of scientific research
  4. Driving better delivery of policy and public services
  5. Creating a fairer society for all

Boosting productivity and trade 

Better data combined with better analysis can provide better insights, better products and services based on data, and better processes that make use of data. This has the potential to significantly enhance competitiveness and productivity across the UK economy, creating new data-enabled business models, as well as data-driven processes by existing businesses.

Skills and jobs

Technical skills in using data are and will be increasingly important to the economy and to the way businesses operate. By supporting and encouraging the better use of data in the UK new jobs and businesses can be created.

Increasing the speed, efficiency and scope of scientific research

New scientific developments driven by data have potentially game-changing applications across the economy, such as tracking public health risks and supporting decarbonisation through smarter energy grids, predictive maintenance of infrastructure or better traffic management. Barriers to accessing data can significantly limit scientific research and thus create delays and uncertainties in reaching solutions. The Government believes these barriers must be overcome if the UK is to stay at the forefront of science and research.

Driving better delivery of policy and public services

A key benefit of having better data is the potential for delivering improved public services at lower cost. Public services often rely heavily on data but unfortunately much of it is in out-of-date legacy systems that cannot talk to each other, making it impossible to deliver interconnected public services. DCMS says: “For central government, better data also means better decision-making. It means policies that can be tailored and delivered more efficiently and significant savings for the public purse. Better evidence on whether policies are delivering their intended effects in different areas and for different groups means interventions can be far more effectively designed”. I couldn't agree more!

Creating a fairer society for all

If we are to tackle bias and exclusion in society, we can use data to do this. Better data will tell us how different groups are doing and identify potentially vulnerable groups more quickly. Data and algorithms based on the use of data are not always neutral and biases will need to be addressed if the Government’s objective of a more inclusive society is to be achieved. The recent experience of the Ofqual algorithm used to allocate results to GCSE and A-level demonstrated how difficult this can be, even with the best of intentions.

In addition to setting out the five opportunities the paper sets out four interconnected pillars that describe the basis for better data use:

  • Data foundations – ensuring that data is fit for purpose
  • Data skills – ensuring data skills for a data-driven economy and data-rich lives
  • Data availability -ensuring data can get to where it is needed
  • Responsible data -driving safe and trusted use of data

The strategy focuses on the delivery of five key missions as priority areas for action:

  • Unlocking the value of data across the economy
  • Securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime
  • Transforming the government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services
  • Ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies 
  • Championing the international flow of data

The UK National Data Strategy Consultation is open until 2 December 2020, with the Government’s response expected to be published in early 2021. 

Alison Ring Director for Public Sector commented: “The framework sounds fantastic, but many will be concerned about the time it has taken for the Government to get to this stage and the potential need for further delays in 2021 as it seeks to refine the strategy. 

“The better use of data is a critical component in the Government’s plans to drive economic growth, improve public services and build a more just society – and so needs to be got right. But it is equally important that the Government moves forward at pace if it is to deliver on the ambitious goals it has for the National Data Strategy.”