Julia Lopez: Data is fundamental to government. Let me know your ideas to use it better

The Cabinet Office minister writes for CSW to launch a new Dragons' Den-style competition to transform government data for citizens and society
Dragons' Den. Photo: Paul Cunningham Alamy Stock

By Julia Lopez

19 Apr 2021


Fans of the Dragons' Den television show may recall the record-breaking turn from Henry de Zoete – now a Cabinet Office non-executive director, but in 2018 just another contestant seeking to impress the fearsome judging panel of business investors.

Henry ended up pulling off the best result in the show’s history. He and his partner Will Hodson netted £120,000 from the Dragons in return for a 3% stake and just a year later sold the business – Look After My Bills – for an impressive £12.5m. 

Clearly Henry is a man who knows a good idea when he sees one. 

So I’m delighted that he is joining me and a judging panel of permanent secretaries for our very own answer to Dragons' Den – the Civil Service Data Challenge. 

It’s a chance for civil servants to apply their inventiveness, ingenuity and expertise to one of the most fundamental challenges facing all of us in government: realising the huge potential of our data assets as we set about building back better after the pandemic and levelling up the country. 

We must continue to be agile and innovative for the testing times ahead – and that’s what our Dragons' Den-style Data Challenge is all about. Because when it comes to using the full potential of our data, who is better placed to come up with a winning formula than our own staff?

Throughout the pandemic, civil servants have worked to improve the lives of the public and outcomes for whole communities. 

Our mission with the Data Challenge is to keep that momentum going - putting your best ideas into practice so that the government continues to make better use of data. With better use of data boosting efficiency, we will strengthen policy making and improve public services. 

Improving the government’s use of data is not a new priority for the prime minister: it was a key manifesto pledge during the 2019 election campaign. 

But over the past 12 months, the challenge has of course taken on a fresh urgency. Covid-19 has jolted the whole of society into finding different ways to live and work. For us in government, our experiences of crisis response – such as trying to identify the 2.6m people most in need of financial support in the early days of tackling the coronavirus – have shown just how important it is to be able to access and share data; how significant it is for the economy and society, and how it will help to power growth and renewal.

Data has been crucial for civil servants in the Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs, Department of Health and Social Care, and Department for Work and Pensions – the ones who heroically set up systems on their kitchen tables and in their spare rooms in those early days of the virus outbreak. 

Government data from PAYE and the benefits system boosted the furlough scheme and the expansion of universal credit. Data from NHS Digital sets was used to draw up the ‘shielding’ list of vulnerable people; and the vaccination programme owes its success in part to being able to organise cohorts by age and risk from patient lists already held by GPs. Contrast this with the difficulties in developing Test and Trace from a standing start and in the absence of a ready-made database.

Data analysis has a key role in cracking crime too. Several million cases of cyber fraud are reported every year, including identifying theft, email and mobile phone fraud and dating scams - all aimed at taking your money. 

My drive to make the civil service data driven

A more data-driven civil service will be a more dynamic civil service. Our goal is to make digital and tech not a stand-alone area of government, but the driving force of everything we do - sharpening our functions and adding value to every area of public service, allowing us to better serve our fellow citizens.

Our colleagues at GDS have been charged with driving the development of our flagship cross-government products and services, such as GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Pay. Notify sent over 2 billion messages in 2020 and is being used by eight new services a day on average. It took one NHS service just seven minutes to implement. Notify and PaaS (Platform as a Service) will work to ensure that services across government are prepared for significant growth in volumes of communication. Pay took 7.1 million payments in 2020 (2.8 times more than in 2019), which helps more than 160 organisations across the public sector who use Pay. GOV.UK Design System helps teams quickly and easily build usable, accessible digital services with the award-winning GOV.UK look and feel.

We will deliver a step change in the way government engages with the citizens we serve. And if we can deliver this over the course of this parliament, it should have a positive impact on our ability genuinely to make people’s lives easier.

And that’s where we want your help. Our Civil Service Data Challenge enjoys heavyweight backing across government: as well as the Cabinet Office and NTT DATA UK, the partnership involves the Office of National Statistics, and the Government Digital Service.

How it works

Teams of civil service volunteers will develop the most promising ideas, pitching them to the judges at the semi-final and final – after which the best entries will receive both technical advice and development support from partner NTT DATA UK, plus the backing of top civil servants.


ALEX CHISHOLM – permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and chief operating officer for the civil service. Prior to that Alex was permanent secretary to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

HENRY de ZOETE - Who better than a been-there-done-that (uber-successful) entry into the Dragons' Den to judge your best ideas? 

VICKI CHAUHAN - Head of public sector at NTT DATA UK.

JULIA LOPEZ - Cabinet Office Minister Julia Lopez is keen to hear your big data ideas that can transform civil service policy. “I suspect I'm a much less ‘fiercesome’ than Deborah Meaden and Alex Chisholm definitely isn’t as scary as Peter Jones,” promises Lopez.

Other judges include some of the most senior data leaders in government, while the programme is sponsored by the heads of the policy and operational delivery professions: Defra permanent secretary Tamara Finkelstein and DWP permanent secretary Peter Schofield respectively.

Regardless of your department, grade or background, if you’re a civil servant with a bright idea for how we can make better use of data in your area then I encourage you to share your thoughts today.

Whilst I can’t promise to offer you a multimillion pound deal, the winners will be supported by a minimum of £50k of financial support, and will gain immense satisfaction from knowing they will help transform the civil service for the better - satisfaction that is priceless. So go for it! 

How to enter

Civil servants have until 14 May 2021 to put forward their ideas or volunteer to join a team via the dedicated website: https://www.datachallenge.uk

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