Public Sector Data Live: Accelerating data-driven decision-making in government

Jonathan Hale
Data Director, Valtech

November 20, 2023

The recent Public Sector Data Live event brought together public service leaders for a day packed with keynotes, discussions and debates to improve the use of data across government. The event was thought-provoking because there was a clear awareness that better data use, sharing, skills and culture underpins successful digital transformation. The challenge is maintaining the pace and removing the barriers to further success – from encouraging public sector organisations to embrace ‘data sharing by default’ and removing barriers to accey of data that can help address today’s - and tomorrow’s - challenges. 

Topics under discussion ranged from improving procurement and making government a smarter customer to shaping policy and delivery with insights. Using structured and unstructured data and moving the focus of public sector digital to creating citizen-centric services were recurrent themes. There was also a recognition that the public sector often fails to use the data it collects from citizens to improve services. The view was that there’s a real opportunity to boost trust in government if it can use insight to shape new policy ideas and initiatives that citizens value.  

For the public sector and citizens to truly benefit from the use of data, however, there must be a step change in data sharing between policy, operations and departments. The event provided insights from civil servants who have led initiatives, sharing their experiences of the incentives, culture, security and risk management needed for better data sharing.  

The role of civil service data professionals 

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case praised the role of civil service data professionals in protecting the public “through the tragedy and trauma of COVID,” adding that “when the pandemic hit, we didn’t have the data we the data that we needed, and we didn’t have it in the format we needed it in – either to take decisions or explain to the public what was happening.”  

COVID led to teams and departments moving with unprecedented speed to collect, integrate and present crucial datasets from a range of sources, including not just government departments but also local authorities, service providers and the private sector. Much has been learnt about the role of data in policy and decision-making, and, Case added, “we now have a political class that expects to take all of their decisions informed with data.” 

A permanent transition to data-driven decision-making? 

When asked whether data-driven decision-making is now the default or is something that the civil service might roll back from, Case said that he felt this was a permanent change. He explained how his “one big thing at a time” approach to driving change is currently focused on data. Every civil servant must log a day of data training this year to support the mission and make data sharing a reality across the departments.  

Megan Lee Devlin, Chief Executive, Central Digital and Data Office (Cabinet Office), spoke about the need for civil servants to “stays curious and keep [their] skills relevant” and shared news of the Civil Service Data Challenge, where teams competed to data initiatives, the winning team developing an AI tool to combat modern slavery.  

There certainly appears to be positive movements when it comes to data culture. Alison Pritchard, Deputy National Statistician and Director General Data Capability, Office for National Statistics, highlighted how the aim is to get to a point where “joined-up data is behind joined-up government” but there’s “still a way to go”. The ONS is leading a cross-government project – the Integrated Data Service – that aims to link government data create a "flow of analysis into policy evaluation and development.”  

I was fortunate to get an opportunity to discuss data sharing across public sector organisations with Alison, who was very generous with her time. It was great to see that the direction of travel is very much towards data-driven decision-making and innovation, encompassing all kinds of public sector bodies from government departments to local authorities and beyond. 

Accelerating data sharing in UK government 

As I reflected on the day on the return home, I considered several initiatives and changes that would help to accelerate the transition. 

Firstly, a very practical change to address the fact that GDS doesn’t include data governance in its service assessment criteria. This seems like an easy way to give delivery teams a mandate to support data sharing. We should start using the Service Standard assessment process to enquire about how services use data. When a service moves from alpha to beta or beta to live, it’s an excellent opportunity to consider how they use data and whether it’s being made available to other teams, departments, public sector organisations and even the private sector. Additionally, I would close the loophole that non-public-facing services don’t need to go through the process.  

The second area to address is creating the environment and culture that permits, or even encourages, service delivery projects to invest in producing, processing, presenting and sharing data sets. To do this, we must ensure that every data project released is linked back to shared data objectives and that delivery teams. If we don’t make data sharing the default for all projects and services, we won’t be able to ensure that there’s alignment of data standards, that services are publishing data catalogues and providing access to data sets. If we don't give teams and organisations across all public sector bodies permission to invest in making their data useful, we won’t reach the ‘sunlit uplands’ that we all want to see. (“Food for thought,” as Alison said.) 

Finally, there are still some blockers to remove. For example, we can change the fact that some departments unnecessarily use data protection agreements that keep their data siloed rather than shared and accessible. Fiona James, Chief Data Officer, ONS, spoke about the value of having “a much more connected relationship with citizens... realising the full value of data as a strategic asset, while maintaining high levels of trust and transparency.” 

Of course, even where there is a willingness to share, there is the issue of who pays for the resource or makes the investment needed to document the data set, present it in a suitable format or make it accessible to initiatives like the IDS. It does sound like Alison Pritchard and Fiona James are making great strides towards a solution. 

If we are to make data the “lifeblood of our public services” - as Megan Lee Devlin hoped - we must give individuals, teams and organisations a mandate to support the change as well as the tools, training and partnerships. You can read more about productising data in this article or contact Valtech to discuss how we can support your data transformation.   

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