Civil service skills map and synthetic data for policymakers among proposals to improve government data use

Written by Jim Dunton on 6 August 2021 in News
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Ideas will be tested and the best will be taken forward 

Credit: Pxhere

Creating a new “geographic capability map” for civil servants is one of eight ideas for boosting the way government uses its data that the Cabinet Office is exploring as part of a “Dragons’ Den” style challenge to strengthen policymaking and improve efficiency.

The suggestion has been longlisted in the Civil Service Data Challenge, along with proposals to improve detection levels for benefit and tax fraud through “richer data exchange” between for the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs and UK Visas and Immigration.

According to challenge organisers, the “capability map” proposal aims to complement the planned relocation of around 22,000 civil service jobs out of London and the south east over the coming years as part of the Places for Growth programme,  now linked to the government's levelling-up agenda.

Submitted by a staff member at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it would provide an online tool showing the current and future locations of teams and specialist staff to help organisations plan their relocations. A core aim would be to assist with the formation of hubs in particular fields to realise economies of scale and develop professional communities.


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Challenge organisers said the longlist was whittled down from nearly 200 suggestions submitted by civil servants since the project launched in March.

The benefit-fraud idea involves linking together existing departmental datasets to make it easier to identify when benefits claimants have been out of the country for long enough to lose their entitlement or to introduce additional ways to find people under-reporting their income.

Another proposal involves using synthetic data applications to improve policymaking and service planning by allowing ideas and policy proposals to be trialled without using real personal data.

The longlisted ideas will now be tested for their viability, potential benefits and any obstacles to delivery. Four will be shortlisted for a live presentation final in December, with the best set to receive technical advice and development support to help them become reality.

Cabinet Office perm sec Alex Chisholm said the initial phase of the challenge had shown a wealth of innovative thinking within the civil service’s ranks that could be used to further improve productivity and service quality.

“The competition so far has clearly demonstrated how valuable our civil servants’ ideas are and highlights the importance of bringing different minds together to explore how current business practices can be improved,” he said. “We’ve seen extremely innovative ideas submitted that have a real chance to improve and influence staff tools, policymaking, and enable us to deliver a greater service to the public.”

The Civil Service Data Challenge is sponsored by the Cabinet Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in partnership with NTT Data UK, a subsidiary of Japanese telecoms giant NTT.

When the call for entries to the challenge launched, Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez described the programme as the civil service’s “very own answer to Dragons’ Den”.

Among the judges for the challenge is Cabinet Office non-executive director Henry de Zoete. In addition to being a former special adviser to Michael Gove, de Zoete successfully pitched his Look After My Bills business on the BBC Two show in 2018, securing £120,000 of investment along with business partner Will Hodson.

Other judges include deputy national statistician and Office for National Statistics director general for data capability Alison Pritchard and Government Digital Service deputy director for policy and innovation Sue Bateman.

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