National Data Strategy promises to ‘tackle government culture of risk aversion’

Document sets out ‘transforming government’s use of data’ as one of five missions
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By Sam Trendall

14 Sep 2020

The long-awaited National Data Strategy has pledged to tackle “long-term and systemic obstacles” that hamper government in its use of information – including a “culture of risk aversion” in the sharing of data across departments.

The strategy, which has been two years in the making, sets out five central “missions” for improving the use of data across industry and the public sector.

These are: unlocking the value of data across the economy; securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime; transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services; ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies; and championing the international flow of data.

To improve how businesses can extract value from data, the government has pledged to research current access to data, and where state intervention would be appropriate.

“This is not simply a case of opening up every data set,” the strategy said. “We must take a considered, evidence-based approach: government interventions to increase or decrease access to data are likely to have myriad consequences, intended and not. There is a balance to be struck between maintaining incentives to collect and curate data, and ensuring that data access is broad enough to maximise its value across the economy. For personal data, we must also take account of the balance between individual rights and public benefit.”

There is little in the way of specific detail on how the UK can achieve the government’s goal of “securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime”.

But, as the end of the EU exit transition period grows closer, the language used in the strategy suggests that the UK’s data-protection legislation may aim to be less restrictive in the future.

For small and medium-sized firms, the government wishes to “lift compliance burdens, where possible”.


Five missions

  • Unlocking the value of data across the economy
  • Securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime
  • Transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services
  • Ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies
  • Championing the international flow of data

“Given the rapid innovation of data-intensive technologies, we also need a data regime that is neither unnecessarily complex nor vague,” the strategy added. “Businesses need certainty to thrive, and the government will work with regulators to prioritise timely, simple and practical guidance, especially for emerging technologies, and create more opportunities to experiment safely.”

The document reiterates the government’s hope that the European Commission will affirm ‘data adequacy’ status that would allow the continued seamless transfer of data between the UK and the EU after Brexit. 

But, in answering a recent written parliamentary question from SNP MP Owen Thompson, media and data minister John Whittingdale indicated that the government is also preparing for the possibility that adequacy status is not conferred before the Brexit deadline.

“We will take sensible steps to prepare for a situation where decisions are not in place by the end of the transition period,” he said. “In such a scenario, businesses and other organisations would be able to use alternative legal mechanisms to continue to transfer personal data.”

The UK will also seek adequacy status with other “global partners”, according to the strategy.

‘Long-term and systemic obstacles’
To achieve the intended transformation in the state’s use of data, the government acknowledges that significant barriers need to be overcome.

“There are numerous obstacles to achieving our ambitions, many of which are long-term and systemic”, the strategy said. “These include: real and perceived legal and security risks of sharing data; a lack of incentives, skills or investment to drive effective governance and overhaul data infrastructure; and a lack of consistency in the standards and systems used across the government, making it hard to share data efficiently.”

The document lays out five key areas where work needs to take place in order to meet these challenges.

The first of these is the “quality, availability and access” to data, and the second relates to “setting and driving the adoption of standards for data” across government.

The strategy also promises to improve data “capability, leadership and culture”. This will see the implementation of a “’data-sharing by default’ approach across government [which] tackles the culture of risk aversion around data use and sharing”.

The other focus areas identified for improving government data use are: accountability and productivity; and ethics and public trust.

"A data-sharing by default approach across government would tackle the culture of risk aversion around data use and sharing"

To ensure a more secure data infrastructure, the government intends to “take a greater responsibility in ensuring that data is sufficiently protected when in transit, or when stored in external datacentres”. 

The strategy also recognises the importance of meeting international cyberthreats “head on”.

To achieve the strategy’s final objective of better advocating for the transfer of data between countries, the UK will use “our international engagement and influence” in support of four goals: building trust in the use of personal data; removing “unnecessary barriers” that currently stymie cross-border data exchanges; increasing adoption of standards and interoperability principles; and driving “UK values internationally”.

The strategy said: “Having left the European Union, the UK now has a unique opportunity – as a world leader in digital and as a champion of free trade and the rules-based international system – to be a force for good in the world, shaping global thinking and promoting the benefits that data can deliver while managing malign influences.”

The government has opened a consultation in which, between now and 2 December, the public is invited to answer one or more of 19 questions posed across the five missions. 

The process hopes to gain the views of start-ups and other tech businesses, “data-rich companies”, groups focused on consumer, digital, and privacy rights, academics, standards bodies, investors, and law firms.

“There is also likely to be wider public interest in the social aspects of the strategy,” the government said. “This consultation is on a UK-wide basis: we welcome responses from organisations and individuals across the UK.”

Sam Trendall is the editor of CSW's sister site PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.

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