Data use in government: Where we’re going next

data use in government
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Sue Bateman, Deputy Director for Data and Innovation at the Government Digital Service (GDS), explores data use in government and in this vein, where we’re going next

At the Government Digital Service (GDS), we want to make sure that data can be used, shared and understood across government. We want data to be the foundation of joined-up and trusted public services. And, we want data to be at the heart of informed policy-making across departments.

To realise this vision, we need to transform how the Civil Service uses and thinks about data. As Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), says in the foreword of the 2020 National Data Strategy:

“It means driving a radical transformation of how the government understands and unlocks the value of its own data to improve a range of public services and inform decisions at scale, through a whole-government approach driven from the centre.”

GDS’s position at the centre, and its history with data and innovation in the design and delivery of user-centred services, means it’s well placed to lead this change in collaboration with its cross-government partners.

The pillars of the National Data Strategy guide our work. It is clear in the huge opportunities afforded by better use of data. By advocating for the responsible use of data, we have the chance to improve government services for everyone by making them trusted, joined-up and data-enabled.

Setting standards

For data to become interoperable across government, there need to be agreed and enforceable standards. This consistency is one crucial component — alongside improving access and quality — that helps departments to quickly and easily access high-quality data which enables cross-government working.

The Data Standards Authority (DSA) drives the adoption of data standards and standardisation of data practice. Run by GDS, in partnership with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), it has already published guidance for all departments to improve data standards. The DSA is also developing the Government API Catalogue, which lists central and local government application programming interfaces (APIs) to help people find and access inter-departmental data exchanges.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) showed the importance of data sharing when services needed to be set up at speed, and at scale, to help some of the most in need. Like the Vulnerable People Service which delivered millions of food parcels to people’s homes. It relied on data sharing under strict safeguards and cross-public sector collaboration to let people receive support.

GDS and ONS are also working together to improve the quality of data across government by providing tools, guidance, training and support to departments.

Building capability in data skills

As data becomes further embedded into government decisions, it’s vital that civil servants have the right skills to be able to interpret and understand it.

There is already a wealth of capability building in place through the efforts of the Government Data Science Partnership, led by GDS, ONS and the Government Office for Science. The programme runs the Data Science Accelerator, holds a regular data science conference and supports the cross-government data science community, all which have vastly developed data science capability and leadership across the Civil Service.

But, we want to do more. The Government Data Science Partnership will drive greater consistency and maturity across government by improving collaboration between departments, enhancing training for data science specialists and upskilling leaders in how to responsibly use data.

Trust and ethics

Any discussion of data use is rightfully, and should always be, accompanied by an acknowledgement of the importance of data ethics. Public servants must be able to make informed decisions about why and when data should be shared.

That’s why we updated the Data Ethics Framework which guides appropriate and responsible data use in government and the wider public sector. This latest update builds on our previous iteration of the framework that has already helped teams. For example, Essex County Council used it when investigating whether they could develop an approach to predicting risk which might enable early intervention.

By operating within, and continually strengthening, this robust ethical framework of transparency, safeguards and assurance, and by following government data handling guidance including the data protection regime, we hope to earn and maintain public trust. This will also be supplemented by our work with open data, allowing people to see the data behind the decisions taken.

This is not new – we already have which has more than 55,000 datasets and is the primary platform to connect with open data. In addition to transparency, open data creates potential for entrepreneurial opportunities – for example, prescription data was used to identify a £200 million saving in the cost of prescriptions.

Leading and collaborating

GDS is excited to lead this work from the centre, as part of the Cabinet Office, and deliver on the ambition set out in the National Data Strategy. We want to make data usable and shareable, and we want to set the highest standards for all of government in managing data.

We want to do this to make government work better for everyone. We want policies and services that are built and iterated on data – data that is open, interoperable and effectively managed.

Better data use is a huge enabler for government – it offers the chance to improve our services. It will help us deliver joined-up, personalised and trusted services that makes government work better for everyone.

And, we know we are not alone in wanting to achieve this across government. Our colleagues in ONS, DCMS, and across the public sector are also keen to work together to realise the opportunities afforded to digital government by data.

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Deputy Director for Data and Innovation
Government Digital Service (GDS)
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