The Government National Data Strategy (NDS) sets out lofty plans for a cohesive, government-wide data architecture. Although much of its contents will have been informed by the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, its remit is far wider than that, with implications to match.
The pandemic showed that public services have an urgent need for data that is accurate, accessible and reliable. Such information has been extensively used to save lives and provide aid to the needy during lockdown, with the government saying that over four million support packages were delivered to vulnerable people as a result of data sharing between local and central government and the private sector.
While a further consultation is due on the NDS’s specifics, the main question will be whether the government can deliver on the document’s promise of eliminating data silos. Those building a government-wide data architecture will have much to consider in the coming months, but the potential rewards are considerable.
Government National Data Strategy: A New Constitution
The NDS outlines problems with the use of data across the private, public and charity sectors. While the three sectors have many barriers in common, local and central government bodies have unique problems to address, as well as a role in setting an example for everyone else to follow.
A public sector problem familiar to organisations concerns the role of legacy IT systems. As the NDS notes, such systems can be outdated, costly to operate, and unable to link with other technologies, having been built independently and iteratively within departments. The technical debt created by legacy systems makes it difficult to collect, maintain and share data, preventing it from being put to new, innovative uses that could help public services and save taxpayer money.
Connected to this problem is the issue of standardising data and making it accessible. This is a particular difficulty within the public sector, but the NDS reports that it is an issue throughout the private and charity sectors too. The government wants to normalise standardised formats for data, hold it on future-proof systems, and make sure it can be found, accessed and re-used.
To this end the government established the Data Standards Authority back in April 2020. The body is already working on standards across government departments, with the NDS stating that the government will mandate certain standards and use spending controls to drive others. But further plans are afoot.
Meet the New Boss
At the heart of the government’s plan to improve its data sharing is the ambition to hire a Chief Data Officer as part of a data leadership team across government. Such an ambition was first touted in the Government Transformation Strategy in February 2017, the role having been briefly held by Mike Bracken in 2015.
The position is part of the government’s drive to improve the leadership around data within the public sector. The call for evidence to inform the NDS reported that “a lack of senior buy-in and leadership on data” was a problem throughout government, and cited a broader lack of alignment.
The Chief Data Officer can be expected to encourage joining up systems and make them more interoperable. Whoever fills the position will implement the government strategy from August, “Joined up data in government: the future of data linking methods”, which included recommendations around machine learning, scalable software, and graph databases.
Supporting the leadership changes is a push for stronger data skills in government. The government hopes to train 500 analysts across the public sector in data science by 2021, as well as reform the data training available to civil servants and create a career pathway for data expertise in government.
In tandem with these reforms, the government is hoping to promote the powers given to public authorities in the Digital Economy Act 2017. This legislation sought to reduce legal barriers to sharing data between public bodies, but the government noted that many in the sector remain averse to it.
Concerns over real and perceived legal barriers are paired with a broader cultural aversion to data sharing. As the NDS says, an “overemphasis on the challenges and risks of misusing data has driven a chronic underuse of data and a woeful lack of understanding of its value.” The government is hoping to turn this culture on its head, making data sharing the norm rather than a special occasion.
Change Has to Come
Although the strategy and many of the related projects are promising, the government has a lot of work ahead of it to achieve its ambitions. Lawmakers, IT departments and end users must collaborate to connect systems and ease the flow of data as much as possible. With proper integration of national IT infrastructure, data will become a huge opportunity for the government and public sector bodies.
A modern, agile architecture can eliminate data silos. So long as such data is securely stored and shared, the benefits are considerable.
With the right approach, the government can use data to better protect the public against the pandemic’s effects. With a bit of luck, it may also fulfil its aim to make the economy more productive, public policy more effective and society fairer.