DCMS perm sec on why the National Data Strategy is ‘not about building systems – it’s about how we work’

After returning to lead an organisation with an expanded roster of responsibilities, Sarah Healey discusses how DCMS can best lead the drive to improve data use and sharing

Credit: Michael Mandiberg/CC BY-SA 2.0 

Sarah Healey became permanent secretary of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in April this year. She moved from the Cabinet Office, where she was heading up the Economic and Domestic Affairs secretariat. 

Before this, she spent two years as second permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union. But this is not her first stint in the culture department. She was director general from 2013 to 2016, working closely with her perm-sec predecessor Sue Owen. 

“In a sense, it really did feel like coming home,” Healey says. “But, in another way, it has been [like] exploring something that looks like your very familiar home, but it has been slightly reconfigured, with a massive extension on the back.”

The extension she’s referring to is the large growth in the department’s digital policy remit and teams. Since 2016 that growing responsibility – along with EU exit work and a few other policy additions – has seen DCMS expand from just under 600 to more than 1,350 staff. But it’s not an extension she’s totally unfamiliar with, since she had a hand in designing it.

“On things like interoperability and standards, we should be really mandatory. It’s going to be important to… have some leverage to ensure systems are designed in a way which is going to follow the standards.”

“Sue and I had a sort of strategy between us to grow the department, and I’m really proud of the fact that a department which was having trouble fulfilling its role and portfolio in 2013 has now become such a proper, grown-up department,” she says.

‘Digital is transforming all sectors’
But the strategy wasn’t just about making DCMS a viable department. It was about creating a more intelligent approach to digital policy across government. 

The department already had responsibility for communications, digital and telecoms sectors, including the rollout of superfast broadband across the UK. In 2015 it took over responsibility for data protection from the Ministry of Justice “sort of by accident,” as Healey puts it, as well as absorbing the Digital Economy Unit from the business department. Healey reflects that it was “extraordinary for [those two policies] not to have been in the same place all along.”

Having different elements of digital policy spread across government “just didn’t seem to match up with the transformation that digital was causing to both the economy and society,” she says. “That’s why I think it works so brilliantly to have a department that does digital in the round rather than dispersing it or thinking of it as a purely economic or sectoral issue, because it’s not really a sector. It’s something that’s transforming all sectors.”

Digital is also transforming – or trying to transform – all of government. DCMS doesn’t have the lead for the government’s digital reforms, or standards – those sit with the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office. But there is an ongoing debate among Whitehall watchers about the extent of the power that GDS now wields, since DCMS has, as of April 2018, held the reins of a vital digital policy area: data.

Better use of data will be an essential part of achieving government’s digital transformation plans, but a recent National Audit Office report on the subject found that “despite years of effort and many well-documented failures, government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data”. As a result, it added, departments had “under-prioritised” their own efforts to improve data.

While GDS is still responsible for putting in place standards around how data is recorded, it is DCMS that is working on the National Data Strategy – first announced last year and now expected to be published next year – which will set out government’s vision for not just how it uses data but how data will shape the economy and country until 2030.

In part because of its ever-receding publication date, there is a lot of pressure on this strategy and its implementation. As the NAO put it, unless government uses it “to push a sea change in strategy and leadership”, this strategy “will be yet another missed opportunity”.

At her first Public Accounts Committee hearing as perm sec, Healey – sitting alongside the Cabinet Office perm sec John Manzoni – was interrogated by MPs over accountability for driving the strategy. The committee’s subsequent report criticised both DCMS and Cabinet Office for attempting to create change by “relying on winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of other departments”, given this approach had failed in the past.

Ensuring the strategy was not squeezed out by departments’ other priorities would instead require “continued and sustained pressure from Cabinet Office and DCMS”, MPs said.

After so many years of struggling to improve government data, does Healey see the value of mandates, rather than persuasion, to effect change? 

Her answer is yes. And no.

“On things like interoperability and standards, we should be really mandatory,” she says. “In the future, it’s going to be important to do that and actually have some leverage to ensure systems are designed in a way which is going to follow the standards.”

“But in terms of innovative use of data: you can’t enforce that sort of thing. You have to instead create a permissive environment,” she says. That means, for example, encouraging people to see that they can balance the risks around data protection while still sharing data to improve services. So DCMS is putting a lot of effort into raising awareness of the opportunities for data sharing created by the Digital Economy Act, and Healey also sees the strategy as an opportunity “to create a culture in which data sharing can be done safely but should be done as far as possible in order to improve services and outcomes.”

The delays to the data strategy have in part been due to Brexit – with DCMS data specialists moved off the project to lead on a cross-government Data Negotiating Hub and for no-deal planning. Given that the strategy is still some way from completion, it could be seen as beneficial that the Spending Review had its own Brexit-related delay and has also been postponed to next year.

Having the strategy in place before the next Spending Review would give DCMS and Cabinet Office teams more time to consider what central funding might be needed to implement it, and would also allow other departments to develop joint bids where data projects span departmental boundaries.

“Joint bids are always a good idea,” Healey (pictured right) says. “I love joint bids, but this isn’t just about money. This is about people understanding the framework in which they can do things that they were going to do anyway.”

She adds: “That PAC hearing got very focused on the idea that this was about building systems. And it’s really not about building systems. It’s actually much more about how we work.”

This article was first published before the commencement of pre-election restrictions

Sam Trendall

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