A data-driven government needs to look beyond regulation

If you were to read through the many interviews that Computer Weekly conducts with IT and digital leaders, you would be left with a clear picture of the number one focus for organisations looking to maximise the benefits of the digital revolution: it’s all about data.

Technology infrastructures are pivoting to place data at their heart – the accumulation, sharing, availability, accuracy, quality, timeliness, completeness and analysis of information legally gathered during the conduct of business. We’ve had databases and queries and reporting and business intelligence and dashboards and all this for a long time, of course. But those were places to put data – narrow windows into the insights therein, rather like reading Encyclopaedia Britannica through a microscope.

The most successful digital organisations will be characterised by their use of real-time data to transform their operations, whether through advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, automation, or other innovations yet to emerge.

Wouldn’t it be good, if the UK could be governed in such a way, too? Imagine a government with its fingers on real-time information about the state of the nation, gathering insights into the success or failure of its policies – indeed, revising those policies based on modelling of the impact of potential changes. Once upon a time, that’s what Universal Credit was meant to deliver for the welfare system – although it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

If you listen to Boris Johnson’s latest foray into the “benefits” of Brexit, he would have you believe that removing regulation about data is the key. The former prime minister is not a fan of rules and regulations, as he so ably demonstrates in the manner he lives his life. But a recent report from respected think-tank the Institute for Government said the use of data during the pandemic showed that regulatory easing is not the issue – cultural and organisational barriers to data sharing are the biggest problem.

Proposed changes to data sharing legislation within government are, understandably, causing concerns among privacy campaigners. Aware perhaps of the sensitivities, the Government Digital Service recently published a somewhat defensive blog post justifying the move. Wider changes to the UK version of GDPR are worrying international businesses even more. Plans for sharing NHS medical data have persistently been put back due to privacy fears and heavy-handed, often tone-deaf justifications by healthcare administrators.

If the government wants to make the UK “a science and technology superpower”, it will not do so without solving the data sharing conundrum. It’s entirely possible to do so – but a regulatory focus is not the way. The technology is available, the digital know-how is available (even if in short supply), but the political, cultural and organisational hurdles must be removed.

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