Minister urges officials to get involved in Dragons’ Den for data ideas

Julia Lopez invites civil servants to put forward proposals for potential £50k support 

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

Civil servants have been encouraged to enter a Dragons’ Den-style competition seeking proposals to improve government’s use of data.

The Data Challenge, submissions to which are open until 14 May, will offer winning ideas support of £50,000 from IT firm NTT Data, which is partnering with government to deliver the initiative. In doing so, the company will work alongside the Government Digital Service and its parent department the Cabinet Office, as well as the Office for National Statistics and the Global Government Forum.

The competition is asking civil servants to put forward innovative ideas that could help improve government operations and the delivery of citizen services, and that have potential to be replicated across different parts of government. The challenge also hopes to garner ideas that could deliver a high return on investment.

Writing exclusively in PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, Cabinet Office minister and competition judge Julia Lopez, said that the contest forms part of a wider plan to ensure data and technology are a central pillar of everything government does.

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“A more data-driven civil service will be a more dynamic civil service,” she said. “Our goal is to make digital and tech not a stand-alone area of government, but the driving force of everything we do – sharpening our functions and adding value to every area of public service, allowing us to better serve our fellow citizens.”

The minister added that the pandemic had, more than ever, demonstrated the importance and power of information and analytics.

“Data has been crucial for civil servants in the Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs, Department of Health and Social Care, and Department for Work and Pensions – the ones who heroically set up systems on their kitchen tables and in their spare rooms in those early days of the virus outbreak,” she said. “Government data from PAYE and the benefits system boosted the furlough scheme and the expansion of universal credit. Data from NHS Digital sets was used to draw up the shielding list of vulnerable people; and the vaccination programme owes its success in part to being able to organise cohorts by age and risk from patient lists already held by GPs. Contrast this with the difficulties in developing Test and Trace from a standing start and in the absence of a ready-made database.”

Officials interested in taking part in the challenge are first invited to submit a simple outline of their idea. The best proposals will then be taken forward into a second stage, during which small teams will be assembled to assist in developing the ideas.

At the end of this stage, proposals will be presented in September to a judging panel. The best of these presentations will make it onto a shortlist where, with help from Whitehall senior executives and NTT Data staff, they will be further refined, including the development of potential specific use cases.

A final contest will take place in December, after which one or more ideas will be crowned as winners, with the intention of taking them forward for implementation.

Appropriately enough, among those on the judging panel will be Henry de Zoete, who in 2018 appeared on Dragons’ Den and secured the best-priced deal of anyone in the show’s history, after securing and investment of £120,000 for a 3% share in his company Look After My Bills. The entrepreneur – who was a key figure in the Vote Leave campaign and, earlier in his career, a special adviser to then-education secretary Michael Gove and an executive at Portland, a lobbying firm with strong ties to Westminster – now serves as a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office.

He and Lopez are joined on the judging panel by Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm, HM Revenue and Customs digital leader Daljit Rehal, deputy national statistician Alison Pritchard, NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould, GDS innovation chief Sue Bateman, NTT Data head of public sector Vicki Chauhan, and Joanna Davinson, executive Director of the recently established Central Digital and Data Office.

More information is available at


Sam Trendall

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