The National Data Strategy needs a shot in the arm

The national plan for the UK’s data needs could learn from the successful vaccine rollout by prioritising experts and practitioners, according to Dan Klein of Zühlke UK

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Newspapers around the world praised our national response to the Covid vaccine rollout; Stonehenge was still shiny and new the last time we received such positive global press.  

OK, I admit: there are more recent examples. But these reasons to be cheerful don’t seem to come along very often, do they?

Which brings us to the National Data Strategy.  

Will these same international newspapers also be lining up to heap praise on our national response to the UK’s data needs?  

The short answer is ‘no’.  

The longer answer is that, unfortunately, the strategy missed out large chunks. For instance, it failed to explain how it would join together the many other public sector data strategies, like the data strategy for health or the energy data strategy underpinning our decarbonisation goals.

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Perhaps more surprisingly, geospatial data is also missing, apart from a few name-checks within case studies. There is zero reference to the new Public Sector Geospatial Agreement (PGSA) and recent Geospatial Strategy.  

You will find yourself preaching to the converted if you were to scream at me how geospatial data is fundamental towards understanding the country we live in, how services are delivered at a local level, and to track environmental issues. There really is no need to bang your drum, because just like you I already know that geospatial is one of the main ways that we link public sector data.

So, let’s take a step back and ask if there any lessons that we can borrow from our vaccine rollout triumph?  

Happily, the short answer is ‘yes’.  

The longer answer is illustrated by the British Medical Journal, which highlights the role of the Vaccine Taskforce: “To help accelerate the acquisition and distribution of vaccine dose.”   

Just what is the parallel we can learn from though?  The taskforce’s very short terms of reference provide a big neon flashing sign to guide us: “make sure that the taskforce has access to the deep, specialist expertise in vaccine preclinical and clinical development, regulatory issues, manufacturing and project management necessary to deliver its objectives.”   

That single sentence has the answer we are looking for. 

The Vaccine Taskforce ensured it had access to the doers.

The taskforce set itself up for success, through involving people with deep specialist expertise. More specifically, the taskforce was successful because it involved practitioners with knowledge and experience across a wide range of different, yet relevant areas.

Practice makes perfect
Perhaps the biggest failing of the National Data Strategy is that it seems to have been compiled without involving practitioners, those people with the deep specialist expertise of using data across a wide breadth of government.  

By contrast, when Zühlke interviewed highly experienced public sector data practitioners we quickly received a wealth of valuable and insightful comments that, had they been in the National Data Strategy, would make it hugely valuable. It would have been wonderful if many of these people had been more closely involved in the first place.

All of this brings us to some reasons that we can all be cheerful.

The Vaccine Taskforce was successful because it involved practitioners with knowledge and experience across a wide range of different, yet relevant areas

Positively, the strategy asked for feedback. The big lesson for the government is to involve the doers and people with deep expertise.  

Going further, why not let the practitioners lead the next step? It would be a waste to undertake further discovery workshops to extend the National Data Strategy.  To borrow a phrase: ‘delivery is the strategy’. We already have the people with the expertise, we should now let them get on with what they do best.

Given in this country we already have all the expertise that we need, we really do have good reason to be cheerful. Let’s unleash our practitioners and their deep specialist expertise and give the National Data Strategy a shot in the arm.  

It would be fantastic if the world’s media praised the UK not only for our vaccine rollout but that they also gave us a big thumbs-up for our response to our national data needs as well. 


Sam Trendall

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