Departments urged to ensure data programmes are backed in next spending review

ONS data chief flags up importance of building support for initiatives into funding bids
Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak leaving 11 Downing Street ahead of delivering his one-year Spending Review in 2020. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

By Sam Trendall

15 Nov 2023

As government begins to approach the next spending round, departments have been urged to ensure programmes relying on data are properly costed, with sufficient support for work on standards and preparation built into funding bids.

The Office for National Statistics recently published a new Data Strategy which, according to the organisation’s chief data officer Fiona James, “has a really big focus on strengthening our collaboration, particularly with the rest of governments and [its] data communities and users”.

The first of the strategy’s eight core missions is geared towards supporting such cross-government cooperation: to enhance data in the ONS and across government by making it more findable, accessible, interoperable and re-usable, as well as better linked.

James – in an exclusive interview with CSW sister publication PublicTechnology – said that the ONS is keen to use its growing collaboration with departments to ensure plans and programmes involving the use of data are adequately considered in submissions to the Treasury.

“Departments need to recognise that they don’t just produce data, but they consume data as well, and there are wider benefits” James says. “For example, we’ve recently been doing something with mobility data – which is quite a high-demand analytical data set – and we’ve been negotiating with a particular commercial provider that could provide us with historical mobility data, as well as real-time data. And this is on behalf of government – not just for ONS use. So, we are contracting with them on a broad basis, rather than each department contracting with the supplier on an individual basis.”

She adds: “As we run up to the next spending review, we need to bang the drum that we need sufficient investment in these data foundations: so, the data engineering and the data preparation costs – they need to be factored in properly, by departments and by programmes. If you’ve got a programme and you have a data element, you need to be costing in that data-standard work because, if you don’t, we’re never going to get to a point where it’s easy to interoperate between departments.”

The strategy, which covers a three-year period, recognises the growing role of external data sources more widely, including commercial providers, and other suppliers of support services to assist the ONS’s work.

James says that the strategy’s ambitions to progress this engagement “are more like an evolution than a step change”.

“I think we recognise that we need to work with external providers to support where we want to get to, with the pace at which things are moving,” she adds.

Some data is provided to the ONS at no cost, on a “value-exchange” basis. This includes information derived from the CHAPS payment database operated by the Bank of England. Other data is acquired by the agency at a cumulative cost of about £6m a year – with further investment also often required to prepare data and put it to use.

PublicTechnology’s full interview with the ONS chief data officer – covering public trust, and the power of linking data across policy areas – can be read here.


Fiona James is appearing as part of a webinar being hosted on 21 November by Civil Service World. The event – which is free to attend – will see the ONS data chief and other expert panellists discuss tried-and-tested strategies to improve data sharing, quality and governance

Register here

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