MPs call on Cabinet Office and DCMS to up the ante on improving Whitehall data use

Previous attempts that have relied on simply ‘winning hearts and minds’ have failed, according to PAC report

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The government must not rely on “winning hearts and minds” to improve the way data is used and shared between departments, a committee of MPs has said.

In a highly critical report, the Public Accounts Committee said poor-quality government data “leads to failings in services provided, poor decision-making and an inability to understand how best to improve”, but efforts to improve the use of data are being undermined by a lack of both clear leadership and pressure on departments to improve their practices.

The Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which announced plans to publish a data strategy for government in June 2018, have since made “little progress” on developing it, PAC said. DCMS has said it will publish the strategy next year, but will not commit to a more specific deadline, and MPs said they were sceptical whether the government had a clear plan for improving the use of data.

When the strategy does emerge, PAC said it must address the question of getting departments to buy into it. Up to now, the committee said, “DCMS has not thought through how to get departments on board to fulfil the data strategy”.

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It will take “continued and sustained pressure from Cabinet Office and DCMS” to ensure the strategy is not squeezed out by departments’ other priorities.

Until now, the MPs said, the two departments had misjudged their approach to driving change by “relying on winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of other departments”.

“This is an approach that has failed in the past. We have seen many times that working together across departments is difficult, largely due to departmental funding, accountability and a culture of working within departments’ boundaries,” the report said, citing similar central initiatives such as shared service centres and Verify, that have fallen down in the past.

It said the two departments should, therefore, consider whether to mandate a consistent approach to data across government.

It also said the two departments should appoint a chief data officer for government as a matter of urgency, and that the appointed official should hold departments to account for their compliance with the strategy.

While the strategy is being developed, departments should take steps to address other barriers to good use of data, the committee said.

“Ageing IT systems” are a major barrier to accessing and using data well, illustrated by the Department for Work and Pensions’ inability to assess its treatment of vulnerable Universal Credit claimants because its IT system did not allow for that. DCMS and the Cabinet Office must identify infrastructure that needs replacing and push departments to take action, PAC said.

The report also called on the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service to come up with a list of 10 data standards for government and implement them from April next year. Such standards do not exist now, and data is recorded and presented inconsistently as a result, the MPs said.

GDS has approved 16 standards, but according to the report, the Cabinet Office said these cover “obscure subjects” rather than “fundamentals” such as how to record people’s names, making it “difficult and expensive” to bring data together.  There are more than 20 methods used by different parts of government to identify people and businesses, and many departments use different reference numbers to refer to the same organisation, the report said.


Sam Trendall

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