New government entities to make ‘significant inroads’ on improving data quality

New teams, standards and projects are being launched, according to update provided to PAC

Credit: Pxhere

A range of new projects, teams and standards frameworks will allow the government to make “significant inroads” in its work to improve the quality and usefulness of data across departments.

In an update provided to the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – and in one of his last acts before leaving government – former civil service chief executive John Manzoni said that “transforming the use of data for policymaking and service delivery is a key priority for the government”.

Since the September 2019 conclusion PAC’s investigation of government’s data challenges, various changes have been made that have “set the foundations for the better use of data in government”, Manzoni said. These have been supported by £16.4m in funding allocated in the Budget that was delivered in March.

This money has been used to enable the creation of a Data Standards Authority (DSA) that will sit within the Government Digital Service, which will work closely with the Official for National Statistics.

Manzoni added: “The DSA will bring departments together to: create data standards to use across government; drive adoption; and improve collaboration on data. The DSA will also address implementation incentives across government and make departments accountable for applying standards.”

In correspondence published by PAC last month, the recently departed civil service chief said that the Cabinet Office will seek additional funding for the authority “potentially through the Spending Review” due to take place later this year.

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The DSA is already recruiting, with a job advert seeking two technical writers recently posted by GDS. The successful candidates will “be able to help shape this authority and join the team at a time where you have the opportunity to set new working practices and lead change”, according to the ad.

“The Data Standards Authority has some big ambitions,” it added. “We want to improve services for end users and improve how new policies are developed through the use of data standards. We need great people to make that happen. You will develop technical content on different data standards to help us improve uptake and expertise across government.”

The money provided by the Budget will also fund the establishment by the ONS of a Centre for Data Quality. The centre will have a cross-government role to improve the quality of information available to departments – which PAC picked out as a major problem.

“The committee identified poor-quality data across government as a significant driver of service failure,” Manzoni said. “The centre will provide tools, guidance, training and support for government to understand, improve and report on data quality. The Centre will publish a Cross-Government Data Quality Framework in 2020/21; provide practical advice to support the production and maintenance of good quality data; establish a cross-departmental network to share knowledge and expertise; and advise departments on quality-improvement initiatives.”

He added: “In combination, the DSA and the Centre for Data Quality will make significant inroads in addressing fundamental challenges to using data across government.”

In addition to the creation of these two new entities, a portion of the money provided by the Budget will be dedicated to running two exploratory projects.

The first of these aims to investigate the “the viability of an integrated data platform for the UK which securely links and anonymises administrative data for analysis and research purposes”.

“Integrated data models allow for powerful policy analysis and evaluation,” Manzoni said. “Pilot projects, delivered by analysts from across government using linked data, will be delivered in the next few months, supporting the levelling-up agenda and [joining] up policy development across government.”

The second project will be run by the Cabinet Office and will conduct various pilots exploring how data analytics can be used in counter-fraud activities. 

“This is an exemplar project which will both deliver measurable financial results, as well as demonstrate the value of data-driven initiatives across government departments,” Manzoni said.

A lasting legacy
The former Cabinet Office permanent secretary noted that the National Data Strategy – due to be published later this year by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – will support and guide government data initiatives over the coming years.

“Further work beyond the projects funded in the Budget is needed to solve the biggest challenges the government faces to manage and use its data as a collective, strategic asset. Work will continue, although the scale and pace of that work in the short term be affected by the response to coronavirus.”

Former civil service CEO John Manzoni

A government-wide audit of legacy technology systems, currently being led by GDS, will also “identify the major challenges and risks, as well as assess capability and skills needed to manage and migrate from legacy IT”.

Manzoni said that, while coronavirus may be hampering the delivery of data initiatives in the near term, the Cabinet Office will continue to place importance on the issue, and will engage with the Treasury to ensure such work is adequately supported in the coming months and years.

“Further work beyond the projects funded in the Budget is needed to solve the biggest challenges the government faces to manage and use its data as a collective, strategic asset,” he said. “Work will continue, although the scale and pace of that work in the short term be affected by the response to coronavirus. The response will be improved by better use and sharing of data across government. We will work with HM Treasury as it rapidly re-profiles spending priorities in response to the coronavirus outbreak, both in the short-term and in a future Spending Review.”

The Cabinet Office will provide PAC with another progress update by the end of September.


Sam Trendall

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