Minister rejects GOV.UK data collection allegations

Dowden insists Brexit-preparation improvements ‘not about collecting personal data’

Oliver Dowden Credit: Cabinet Office

By Jim.Dunton

23 Sep 2019

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden has rejected the suggestion that preparation for the UK’s departure from the European Union is being used as part of a politically-motivated drive to boost levels of personal data collection from GOV.UK.

Dowden said the work at the centre of the claims was “simply about having a consistent view of anonymous performance data” to “understand the big picture”. 

Civil service chief exec John Manzoni followed Dowden’s rebuttal with an unapologetic commitment that the government would use EU exit as an accelerator for delivering more citizen-centric online services. “We have an enormous opportunity in the crisis du jour, the Brexit opportunity,” he added.


A report last week claimed prime minister Boris Johnson had ordered the Cabinet Office to turn GOV.UK into platform for “targeted and personalised information” in preparation for Brexit. 

BuzzFeed News said communications from Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings had described the data-sharing move as a “top priority”, but also included suggestions there may be motives for the drive other than Brexit-preparation.

Speaking at the Sprint 19 conference last week, Dowden accepted that ministers wanted to drive a more streamlined approach to data and digital services over the next 12 months – but insisted it was not a politically motivated move and was aimed at fixing a currently-fragmented service.

“We want to bring together the different parts of government involved in delivering services – embedding a digital culture within policy teams across government to bring services, data and information into one seamless user journey,” he said.

Dowden cited “key life events” like having a baby, setting up a business, and registering a death as examples.

“This doesn’t just make things better for our users, it enables government to deliver smarter public services by getting things right from the start,” he said.

“Doing this requires us to bring together data that already exists into one place, so that trends can be properly analysed to improve things for users. But up until now, analytics for GOV.UK been fragmented, which has made this impossible.

“We’re now fixing this siloed approach to data once and for all so that we can get better insights into how people are interacting with government online.

“But let’s be clear. It is absolutely not about gathering people’s personal data for political purposes.”

Dowden accepted that the demands of leaving the European Union had been “a catalyst” for the work, adding the project was something ministers had been “planning to do for some time”.

“This is simply about having a consistent view of anonymous performance data, so that we can understand the big picture,” he said.

“Bringing together a consolidated view of anonymised user activity on GOV.UK will help us to identify problems, spot correlations and come up with solutions that make it quicker, easier and more intuitive for our users to interact with government.”

Speaking immediately after Dowden, Manzoni – who is Cabinet Office perm sec as well as civil service chief executive –  told Sprint 19’s 600-plus attendees  that the Cabinet Office’s ultimate aim was achieving “a sort of citizen-centricity” for the services they received.

“The citizen really doesn’t want to know whether you’re DWP [Department for Work and Pension], whether you’re DH [Department of Health and Social Care], or whether you’re the Ministry of Justice,” he said.

“They want to know government is here to help them. They want the government to make their life easier. So the question is, how do we continue to give ourselves that power of citizen-centricity for what we’re striving to do?

“We must continue to build all of those things which are enabling the environment to get that done.”

Manzoni said the UK’s decision to leave the European Union was accelerating GDS’ work on citizen-centric online services.

“We have an enormous opportunity in the crisis du jour, the Brexit opportunity,” he said. “It’s forcing the pace on a number of issues. 

“The possibility of providing that single portal through which citizens interface through government and then joining everything up behind…  It’s a very powerful concept 

“We’ve got to do it in a way that accords with the law and we’ve got to do it in a way that accords with the citizen. But we are using Brexit to accelerate that.”

Interim GDS chief Alison Pritchard told a subsequent Sprint 19 press briefing that GDS was doing “nothing more than you’d expect any organisation that has a complex web portal approach” to do in terms of its analytics.

“I’m satisfied that the policy intent we’re trying to achieve is absolutely right,” she said.

However, she added that she was “not naive” and understood that the issues were “a really difficult space to operate in”. 

Pritchard said analysing aggregate-level data on people’s use of GOV.UK’s Brexit Checker service – which aims to signpost participants to key sources of information on preparing for EU Exit, based on their answers to a 60-second survey – was an important way to drive improvement. 

She added that such analysis could inform improvements to awareness campaigns.

Manzoni previously set out how the government would measure success of the programme, revealing that government would track user journeys through government’s Get Ready for Brexit website.

“Because this primarily drives people to the website we can do quite a lot of analytics on the website around what journeys are being followed, how many people leave successfully from that website having found the information, there is quite a lot of analytics we can do. We have nine step-by-step processes [for different areas of Brexit preparation], so we can track the number of business that go there, and we are additionally introducing a series of surveys both with public citizens and businesses so that we can routinely check where those are and those will be ramped up,” he told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee earlier this month.

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