By Colin Marrs

05 Apr 2017

Civil Service World brought together a panel of IT experts from across the civil service to explore the opportunities and challenges presented by the use of data in policymaking and delivery

Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb, but he gained fame for making it commercially viable. His discovery that carbonised bamboo could burn for hundreds of hours followed painstaking experimentation with filament materials including platinum, cardboard and cotton. The UK government currently faces its own design challenge – providing efficient data-driven services to users. To discuss the opportunities and obstacles to realising the vision, CSW, in partnership with global digital transformation specialist Cognizant, recently gathered together a group of Whitehall technology experts.

The potential of public sector data is huge, according to Damion Nickerson, engagement manager at the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing. “Departments and local areas are seeing how if they change together, they can join up, and that their data not only becomes more manageable, but also becomes more important and has better public outcomes,” he said.

Pockets of good practice within government are already emerging. Ian Charlton, enterprise architect at HM Passport Office, pointed out that citizens applying for driving licences can now seamlessly pull in their passport photo. But despite such high-profile sharing successes, it is not always possible for officials to get hold of the data they need. Sue Pycroft, a review officer at the Department for Work and Pensions, said: “We need to have the infrastructure to be able to communicate between departments, or within the department, to get up-to-date, correct information. Lower down, we’re not getting the tools to do the job.”

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Jayesh Kothari, senior thematic investigator at the Legal Aid Agency, suggested a solution. “If you start to create some sort of map, with departments showing what data they have, you could begin to see where there is crossover,” he said. However, he admitted that the barriers were not always technical, and that issues of trust often got in the way. Wary officials often take a risk averse-approach to protect themselves, he said, arguing for greater direction from the centre of government on the issue. 

Joan Ogbebor, assistant account manager in the inspection planning team at HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, observed that although “data is everywhere,” inconsistency in measurement and systems currently provide barriers to its efficient use. “We have 43 police forces which all have their own data system,” she said. “There needs to be similar procurement, to see where the similarities are, and reduce inconsistencies.”

But was the panel clear on what “data-driven” meant in practice? Steve Walker, project director, analytics and information management at Cognizant UK, was keen to draw a distinction between information-based and data-driven services. “For me, a data-driven service is the pure provision of name and address data to get a single golden version of the truth. An information-driven service is where you’re sharing insights, patterns and behaviours to inform a new decision to draw wider conclusions.”

“We have 43 police forces, each with their own data system. There needs to be similar procurement to find similarities and reduce inconsistencies” – Joan Ogbebor, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary

Ogbebor was clear – the objective of any data or information-driven service must be to discover customer needs, and to design systems to meet them. “Right now, we are in the 21st century, but the services we are providing are way behind the demands that we get.” The holy grail, she said, was “using data that is available everywhere, to get to where the customer wants us to be”.

However, Charlie Boundy, head of data science at the DWP, warned the group that meeting citizen expectations would be no small feat. “I think we’re in a world now, after the first wave of digital, where everyone’s expectations are incredibly high. If I want to know the answer to something, wherever I am, I just swipe my phone, look it up on Google, and I get answers. Whereas if I’m doing my day job in a government department, or I’m somebody contacting government, I don’t get the same experience.”

A chicken-and-egg debate on whether data or information should shape project aims ensued. Cammil Taank, data architect at the Department for International Trade argued that managers need to formulate their objectives before approaching data specialists for assistance in meeting them. “Lots of people now identify us as the data team, and they come to us and they say, ‘Can we have a graph on this’?” he said. “It’s like going into a restaurant and saying, ‘Can I have some carrots, some flour, some eggs?’ What you actually want is something specific to your objective, so tell us what your objective is, and we’ll see if we can help you.”

Taank said that those working with data in government need to be clear about their role in the chain, identifying three key areas of labour. “There’s data collection, there’s data analysis, and there’s execution,” he said. “And if people know which one of those three they belong to, and how they interact with the next person down the chain, we will be doing things extremely efficiently.”
However, channelling the spirit of Edison, Julian Harris, head of innovation at the DWP, argued for the value of experimentation. “Real-time access to data gives you really strong feedback around exploration,” he said. “You don’t necessarily know what you want, but you’re starting to synthesise, and enabling a new kind of hybrid role in departments.”

Arguing for a recasting of the division of labour in data collection and analysis, he said: “These new roles are not simply about compiling data-side lists, and they’re not just functionaries who want a specific report. They are smarter agents, who can actually explore more effectively, because they have a broader access to data that can then somewhat be scaled in their own capacity to be more effective.”

With a noticeable gap between citizens’ experience of private companies’ digital services and those in the public sector, what lessons can government learn from the business world? Mark Duffy, director of enterprise information management at Cognizant, said “Big Data” was now at the heart of many commercial firms’ strategies. “The senior leadership get it and they drive it through the organisation, at every level,” he said. “Where it fails is where it gets to a certain level at middle management, and they don’t buy into it.”

The commercial imperative comes more naturally to departments – like the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency – which sell products to the public, according to the Passport Office’s Charlton. The biggest challenges, he said, are much greater for other parts of Whitehall. “A company is operating in a marketplace, and up against competition,” he said. “However, most of us aren’t up against competition, we’ve got no-one to compete with, therefore the drivers aren’t the same.”

Given Edison’s unsuccessful initial efforts at creating a cheap lightbulb, he might have had some sympathy with the over-used digital mantra “fail fast”. And at such an early stage of the journey to the provision of data-driven services, it is natural for officials to sometimes feel they are grasping around in the dark. As Charles D’Auria, data strategy manager at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, said: “In data, nobody knows quite what the best practices are yet. If you look at the last 10 years, software has rapidly evolved in terms of the way people are organised. That hasn’t happened with data yet, but it will do, probably in another 10 years.”

  • Charlie Boundy, head of data science, DWP
  • Cammil Taank, data architect, DIT
  • Sue Pycroft, review officer, DWP
  • Charles D’Auria, data strategy manager, BEIS
  • Steve Walker, project director analytics and information management, Cognizant UK
  • Jayesh Kothari, senior thematic investigator, Legal Aid Agency
  • Julian Harris, head of innovation, DWP
  • Joan Ogbebor, assistant account manager, inspection planning team, HMIC
  • Damion Nickerson, engagement manager, Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing
  • Ian Charlton, enterprise architect, HMPO
  • Mark Duffy, director of enterprise information management, Cognizant
  • Simon Johnson, user research lead digital, data and technology, BEIS
  • Not pictured: Ed Humpherson, director general, regulation, UK Statistics Authority

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