The government first announced its plan to develop a National Data Strategy in summer 2018.
By the time the plan was finally published in September 2020, a lot had happened – and a lot would continue to happen for a long time thereafter.
One might assume that the demands placed on government by coronavirus response would have detracted from the impact and import of the strategy. But, in many ways, it landed at a uniquely apposite time.
For one thing, six months of the daily ritual of studying case numbers, R-rates, and week-on-week comparisons had made budding data experts of us all.
And what is more, all that data, and much more besides, was flowing between public sector entities with an urgency and – relative – ease like never before.
But, even in the white heat of pandemic response, departments continued to be challenged by some familiar difficulties in making the most of their data. Without the exigencies of the Covid crisis, those barriers may now appear a little bigger once again.
But the events of the past two years have also provided a heightened awareness of the power of data to support the work of government, and a greater will than ever before to address the obstacles to be overcome in order to unleash its potential to better design policy and deliver citizen services.
To discuss how best to do so, Civil Service World teamed up with SAS, Capgemini, and Intel, to host a roundtable discussion that brought together data leaders from across government to share their experiences – including their key objectives for the coming months and years, the challenges they face in sharing data across departmental boundaries, and what support they require.
The discussion took place against the backdrop of a study conducted by CSW sister organisation Dods Research. The findings are now available in the 2022 UK Government Data Survey research report.
About two-thirds of officials that took part in the survey pointed to incumbent technology infrastructure as a barrier to data sharing. Other notable issues flagged up by respondents included budget restrictions and a lack of interoperability between systems.
Chris Scarlott head of capability and learning at the Department for Work and Pensions, said that “patchy would be a good word” to describe the sharing of data between learning and development teams in various parts of government. He told fellow roundtable attendees about his recent participation in a review of spending on learning activities throughout Whitehall, during which he joined a forum with counterparts from other agencies.
“We discovered instantly widespread inconsistencies in even what do we call learning, and what are you measuring?,” he said. “That exercise showed that there is a lack of consistency across government in terms of what terms you use to describe learning, capability, [or] skills, and how you assess them. And a simple question – of can we capture how much the civil service is spending on learning? – proved almost impossible to answer.”
This issue is compounded by departments’ status as discrete entities with differing IT systems and operational structures, including pay.
Data literacy is super important, it is about the role of data, how to get the information and – something that's important in data sharing – whether you have good quality data?
Iain Beckingham, UK chief technology officer at Intel, believes that “technology is probably not the biggest barrier… it's probably breaking down from the cultural barriers, which is tougher”.
He agrees that a “common language and understanding” of data is needed across government.
“Data literacy is super important,” he said. “It is about the role of data, how to get the information and – something that's important in data sharing – whether you have good quality data? And how do we grade that?”
Afsheen Nasir – who also works in learning and development, heading up the discipline for HM Treasury – agreed that government’s ability to make the most of data is currently something of a mixed picture.
She cites her current employer as a comparative leader in its access to L&D and HR data, as well as its use of analytics and visualisation tools – particularly for gaining insights from information related to its diversity and inclusion objectives.
Sharing and learning
Data practitioners participating in the roundtable identified several developments that they believed would help progress the use of information throughout government.
More opportunities to share best practice and replicate successful processes across departments would be appreciated. Of particular value would be the establishment of a culture with a higher tolerance for risk-taking – and even failure – and one that better supported the sharing of mistakes or experiments that did not pan out, which our group of data leaders said would be of huge benefit in enabling future projects.
For innovative ideas to get off the ground currently, the old maxim about the mother of invention holds true.
The coronavirus crisis helped open new pathways and use cases for data and the invasion of Ukraine is now similarly opening doors. Although Pawel Krzemienski, a Home Office official on loan to a special Ukraine task force, where he is leading on modelling and analytics, said that the process of finding and accessing the right data has been somewhat “painful”.
“Getting agreement from someone to say that they are happy for that data to represent the state of their services as they are now can make them feel a bit exposed,” he said.
But the connections are being established and the task force already has access to information from “a number of sources” throughout the public sector.
“On the demand scenario side, Home Office analytical colleagues have modelled how many visa applications we have already got, and how many we will get, and also what are the demographics of this population – and how will it be spread out [among] local authorities?,” he said.
The key part is then using this information to help understand the impact on the public sector – and the country more widely – with insights used to inform policy design and the allocation of resources.
“We want to overlay [the data onto] the readiness of various services,” Krzemienski said.” So, for example, we work with the Department of Education, to provide us [with information] on school capacity in various stages of education… we work with the Department of Health and Social Care, to provide us some [data] on the readiness of different aspects of the health service. We [are also considering] the readiness of jobs and housing as well.”
The task force analytics chief added that, being as “you can’t put the department in a crisis mode all the time”, he would like to find the answer of how the momentum and – comparative – openness of emergency response could be maintained in the longer term.
During the early months of pandemic, the DWP’s skills and HR functions needed to make sure colleagues were best equipped to do their jobs safely, while also providing rapid training for the swathes of staff that needed to be moved to front-line roles supporting the huge spike in demand for Universal Credit.
“This was done in a very knee-jerk, crisis-management way,” Scarlott said. “Whether there were things we can take from that, to think about how we do some of the business-as-usual stuff, I think is interesting.”
He added: “From that experience we have recently formed a DWP skills unit, the idea of which is trying to capture – in a consistent way using a consistent language – the skills of all 95,000 people who work in DWP. So, if we were to have a situation like [the pandemic] again, we will be able to plan with a little more common sense and a knowledge of what skills people had, so we could more readily move them into roles, where maybe they already had an 80% match for those skills, or they've done a role like that a couple of years ago, and could easily move back into it.”
It is not just the biggest departments, such as the DWP, that are delivering innovative work.
The Valuation Office Agency, an HMRC-sponsored agency which is responsible for maintaining the nationwide list of council tax bands, has a workforce of about 3,600 - making it one twenty-seventh the size of the DWP.
Claire Lyall, the VOA’s domestic statistics lead, said that the agency’s data-focused work is “quite fast-paced all the time”, with a small team of about 60 analysts often required to “work flexibly across projects”. As a result, the organisation is not quite “as good at shouting about all the good things we have done” when compared with larger ministries.
This includes current work taking place to pioneer the use of the Integrated Data Service, a cloud-based platform launched last year by the Office for National Statistics through which departments can access and collaborate with data.
“We are quite lucky, because we have the opportunity to work with many other stakeholders,” Lyall said. “We're in the process at of working with ONS… to gain access to the platform, and hopefully be involved in analytical lighthouse projects that they've got going on, working in collaboration between the two [organisations]… Although we are small, we have good links, and we do try to network across other departments, find out what people are doing, and share best practices.”
Simon Pearson, vice president, tax and trade, at Capgemini, believes there is a need for more programmes to serve as “lighthouse projects” that demonstrate “the value the department gets from interacting with another department or with another part of industry”.
This has become even more important given the imperative to deliver on the “ambitious vision” set out in the National Data Strategy.
Pearson believes there are already several examples that could serve as such beacons.
He said: “What government are seeking to achieve through the Single Trade Window is potentially a great enabler for trade: bringing together data from across departments to reduce burdens and frictions for traders; and increase benefits around inspection and understanding of patterns of trade for departments. The principle of data sharing could be applied to many different perspectives and sectors in the trade ecosystem, including monitoring of the globally important Sustainability agenda.”
Pearson added: “These initiatives are important for multinationals critical to supporting our economy… but also to create equity and fairness for small traders that want to gain access to new markets. The use of shared data supports the government’s need to maintain safety and access to key goods for our population”
Simon Dennis, head of government affairs at SAS, agreed that the work on the Single Trade Window – a £180m project to create a digital one-stop shop for traders to provide information that is then shared, as required, between all relevant teams and agencies – is a great exemplar of government’s capability.
“It is not just trade; you can echo that data into, say, food security, or indeed supply-chain resilience – and you get two bangs for the same buck, because the same data, repurposed in different ways, will feed both of those use cases,” he said.
In delivering their data strategy over the coming years, ministers and civil service leaders should remind themselves of the innovation of which their colleagues are capable, believes Dennis.
“Actually, I think government does some amazing things, he said. “HMRC are doing things that banks don't do, because banks haven't yet taken that step. So, in some areas of data sharing and using analytics for interesting purposes, government actually is right at the bleeding edge.”
- Simon Dennis – head of government affairs, SAS
- Afsheen Nasir - head of learning and development, HM Treasury
- Simon Pearson – vice president, tax and trade, Capgemini
- Pawel Krzemienski – on loan to Ukraine Humanitarian Taskforce, leading on Modelling and Analytics, Home Office
- Iain Beckingham – UK chief technology office, Intel
- Claire Lyall – domestic statistics lead, Valuation Office Agency
- Chris Scarlott – head of capability and learning, Department for Work and Pensions
- Sam Trendall (chair) – editor, PublicTechnology