Data can, and should, inform better policy

Written by David Downing on 21 November 2017 in Opinion

David Downing of SAS outlines why the government needs to make better use of its reservoirs of data

Credit: SAS

The social, political and economic challenges facing governments seem eternal. Decision-makers across the world can struggle to understand the needs of their citizens and where government resources would do the most good. It is precisely why British policymakers should be looking to data for the answers.
Even in the face of GDPR and the draft Data Protection Bill, the amount of personal and public data government departments can access is immense. This abundance of information has enabled the digitisation of services such as tax returns, passport renewals, and certain elements of welfare provision. However, this is only scratching the surface of what a truly digital government is capable of.  

Today’s service users, particularly millennials and Generation Z, expect faster, digitally enabled ways to engage with the public sector. They demand the same level of speed and personalisation they enjoy in the commercial space. In industries such as travel, banking and retail all their needs are catered for online and from the convenience of a smartphone. While the UK government has excelled in front-end service provision, its citizens demand more. 

Policymakers should look at the digital transformations sweeping the private sector. In many sectors, the adoption of sophisticated real-time analytics has created greater efficiency and more profits. The same technology could also help the government mine its vast data sets for actionable insights it can use to inform policy for the better.

As new channels of communication open up, the government will be able to better use its data reservoirs. Siloes will be broken down and pooled with open and external data before being analysed in real-time. Politicians will be able to engage with their citizens faster and more frequently, obtaining feedback online and assessing public opinion through social media. 

For example, car registrations shared by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency with HM Revenue and Customs might reveal that someone with a very expensive car has a tax code that corresponds to very low tax payments. This may not be an instance of tax evasion, but might be worthy of further investigation.

The government could also use its data to more accurately predict housing demand and the impact of population and economic shifts across the country. This would enable better resource allocation as the government uses shared insight to streamline planning and budget more effectively for growth and spending.

The potential of a digitally enabled central government is inspiring. Beyond cutting costs, it holds the power to solve some of the country’s most pressing policy challenges and break down the barriers between citizen and government. Nonetheless, given the pace of demographic change and the growing appetite for digital, the digitalisation programme should not have a perceived end point. 

Digital government is a continuous digital evolution, and the UK has all it needs to set it in motion.

About the author

David Downing (pictured above) is central government and healthcare director at SAS UK

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