Government pledges to ‘set requirement to share data across departments’

Reform plan stresses ambition to improve use of tech and data
Pxhere

By Sam Trendall

17 Jun 2021

Departments will be required to share data with one another under plans set out in the Declaration on Government Reform.

The wide-ranging plan which sets out transformative measures such as ensuring that more than half of all senior civil service roles are based outside London within 10 years.

Also high on the reform agenda is improving the use of data, digital and technology, including a pledge to “put data at the heart of our decision-making”. In doing so, officials will build on “the approach we have taken in responding to Covid-19”, the declaration said.

“We will set a presumption in favour of openness and a requirement to share data across departments, so that policies are informed by the best data analysis from across government,” it added. “We will create data inventories to ensure we know what data exists, where it is stored, and how it can be accessed. We will make data visualisation a common tool to ensure ministers and officials understand in real time the latest evidence underpinning decisions.”

Science, technology and engineering expertise, meanwhile, will be brought to bear in the creation and delivery of policy and services.

“We will expect officials to ask: ‘how can science help?’ when approaching problems and have the skills to deliver on this,” the declaration said. “We will encourage considered risk taking to find new ways to solve challenges, expanding our use of experimentation and randomised controlled trials, and increase procurement and adoption of innovation. We will build internal capability and external networks to access and understand the best scientific insights available in support of our policy goals and their delivery. We will invest in the latest technology, and replace legacy IT systems that are overly complex and difficult to use.”

Cross-government functions – including digital, as well as commercial, finance, and HR – will be strengthened “to better support departments’ corporate activity”.

The plan also includes a pledge to “reinvigorate the principle of departmental accountability”. This will involve “trusting departments to deliver their objectives, supported by a smarter centre”.

Once again, data and digital services – developed and led by the Government Digital Service and its new Cabinet Office stablemate, the Central Digital and Data Office – are likely to play a key role.

The declaration said: “In order that departments can focus on solving the policy and delivery problems they face, we will ensure that the centre supports them effectively by providing the functions and platforms they need to excel: all departments will have access to interoperable data and IT services; there will be a single digital log-on for all government services; government communications will be organised more coherently from the centre; the HR needs of all departments will be better coordinated; and procurement processes will be reformed and simplified now we have left the EU, helping departments benefit from economies of scale and the best commercial expertise. These enhanced corporate functions will have their own targets for improved performance – including the financial savings they are expected to bring year-on-year.”

Launching the declaration, Cabinet Office minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove singled out the government’s online infrastructure as an exemplar of the citizen-focused approach that should be taken.

“We need to build government around the individual – rather than brigading the individual into the sort of categories that suit government – that’s got to be the way forward,” he said. “GOV.UK is a perfect example of what this means in practice. The citizen does not care which department has the information they want or runs the service they wish to use – so GOV.UK, the government’s digital platform, doesn’t either. And the wisdom of this approach is borne out by its popularity, which is now greater in terms of visits than the Guardian or Netflix.”

But, according to Gove, there are other elements of the government’s DDaT proposition that are not currently fit for purpose.

“The Covid crisis exposed how inadequate data sharing across government had been,” he said. “The Department of Health and Social Care, when ordering new PPE, was, initially, unable to discern what the PPE stocks in individual NHS Trusts might be. Information which should have been shared between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, and HMRC on the need for government support was, at its best, imperfect. There are huge pools of information within each government department which, when we share them, can enable much more effective delivery of public services.”

The Cabinet Office minister acknowledged that “in outlining the scale and nature of the reforms in our declaration, I recognise there will be pushback, criticism and some cynicism”.

“I hope tough questions are asked,” he added. “By politicians from all parties, civil service colleagues, other public servants and, indeed, citizens across the country. The plans we outline today are there to be tested, analysed and critiqued in order to inform them.”

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.

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