For all the government’s attempts to improve the use of public data, it does not even have a standard way of recording names, a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reveals, with data standards only agreed for “obscure” subjects.
Attempts have been made by the Government Digital Service (GDS), part of the Cabinet Office, to implement standards for incoming data, but so far they have only published 16, i.e. for areas such as advertising government job vacancies.
IT Systems also Fragmented
In a typically robust report published Wednesday, PAC added that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) department (responsible for producing a national data plan by 2020) admitted to PAC that it had no insight into government-wide IT infrastructure.
Without it, it’s stymied from linking systems to draw value from data.
“Neither Cabinet Office nor DCMS has a government-wide list of the IT systems that government will need to upgrade or replace if it wishes to make real advances in how it uses data,” PAC said, pointing to the clear need for more asset discovery. The result: The DCMS is unable to clearly identify “opportunities to link together data systems.”
Government Data Strategy: Who’s in Charge Here?
Currently the oversight for data practices within the UK government is spread across several departments: DCMS is in charge of how data policy is set, while the Cabinet Office is responsible for data skills and standards. Individual departments, meanwhile, are responsible for managing data, funding and enacting data improvement projects.
The PAC found that: “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.”
Ultimately the PAC found that: “It is not clear who is responsible for planning and driving the changes needed to improve government’s use of data.”
Permanent Secretaries Not Turning Up
The Data Advisory Board is the senior oversight board for data across government. PAC warned that it looks like it’s not being taken seriously.
As the committe notes, only two of the 18 people who attended it its most recent meeting were permanent secretaries (senior civil servants), “despite these being the core members of the board.”
As for that national data plan?
DCMS only issued a preliminary ‘open call for evidence’ on June 10 2019, nearly a full year after the plan was announced. A government Chief Data Officer role, meanwhile, remains unfilled.
Where’s this Data, Anyway?
John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service and permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office, meanwhile admitted in oral evidence to PAC that unstructured public datasets were not always being stored in the UK, let alone Europe.
Asked where public data sat (after saying due to the governnent’s cloud-first policy, much was in the public cloud), he said: “Because of Brexit, we are examining all of that and making sure that they [datasets] are in the right places.”
“They are not all there yet, but we are moving in that direction.”
Asked if this meant that they were held in the UK, he said: “I cannot guarantee that it will all be—it won’t. There are some non-European countries.
“There is an agreement with the US; I cannot remember the name of it now. A lot of it is in the US under the particular arrangements that we have on data access with the US. Of course none of this is perfect, but in a security sense, the public cloud is at least as secure as anything that we have—other than the top-secret stuff, which we deal with specially.”