Civil service chief John Manzoni urges change as data revolution ‘comes for government’

Written by Rebecca Hill on 18 January 2017 in News
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Data analysis must no longer be seen as role for policy professionals, says top civil servant, but as the "life blood of operational decision making"

Government needs to be ready for the 'data revolution' that has shaken other industries - Photo credit: Flickr, Robert Scoble, CC BY 2.0 

The increased status of data scientists in government means analysis can no longer be seen as the “preserve of a policy elite”, John Manzoni, the chief executive of the civil service has said.Writing in a data science special edition of the Civil Service Quarterly magazine, Manzoni said that the increase in data availability and quality, along the shift towards digital services, was changing “the whole fabric of government”.

The scale of the data available to government offers huge potential to improve public services, but Whitehall needs to change the way it works if it wants to make the most of this by embracing new policies, tools and techniques.

“The data revolution has shaken entire industries such as retail, transport and financial services, and this disruption is coming for government too,” Manzoni wrote.

“Analysis has too often been seen as the preserve of a policy elite; something for ministers and senior boards rather than the life-blood of operational decision-making in government,” he said.

He added that, although there had been a steady growth in the use of some data in the operational parts of government, the new data science tools – for instance machine learning – will lead to a “substantial shift” in the way government works.

“We are entering an age when analysis will increasingly be built into new digital services; powering decisions made in the moment by frontline workers,” he said, adding that this should lead to greater efficiency and a more personalised experience for citizens.

 


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Manzoni set out three main ways in which Whitehall needs to adapt to the “seize this opportunity” in data science: improving data infrastructure, establishing better policies on data use and boosting civil servants’ skills.

For instance, he said, the data that government holds is too often “hard to find, hard to access and hard to work with” – to fix this, teams are creating a set of developer-friendly open registers of core data, such as on local authorities, as well as tools to help create APIs for new digital services.

The government also needs to make sure that the people working in government, who will be expected to use this data, are properly equipped to do so, Manzoni said. He said that more data scientists would need to be recruited and trained – something that the Government Digital Service aims to do through its data science accelerator scheme.

Manzoni also stressed that Whitehall must make sure that it acts appropriately when using data, and that the Digital Economy Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, would “sure government is doing the right thing”.

However, that bill has come in for criticism from privacy campaigners, opposition MPs and open data experts, who said that government needs to address its tendency to use bulk data too much.

This is something that the former director of data at GDS, Paul Maltby, raised in October, when he said that an improved use of data by government would most likely mean a move away from bulk data transfer between departments towards a “more efficient, consent-based, and privacy-aware way of managing personal data”.

Maltby has also written an article for Civil Service Quarterly, which looked at the development of the data science community in government – including the creation of the accelerator scheme – and how it has increased awareness of the potential of data among ministers as well as the civil service.

The importance of skills is also raised by the UK’s national statistician John Pullinger, who is also the head of the Government Statistical Service, in his essay in the magazine, which said that investment in data capability must also underpin the government’s strategy to improve statistics in the UK.

Other articles in the magazine include practical examples of data use in policymaking and service design – for instance in integration of health and social care services, tools to help people manage health-related benefits and flood warning systems. 

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