The National Data Strategy needs doers

This is a guest blogpost by Dan Klein, Director, Solution Centre, Zühlke Engineering

Albert Einstein told us “you can’t use an old map to explore a new world”. Common sense further dictates that those who have explored the new world, are best placed to help others follow in their footsteps. The government’s National Data Strategy’s opportunity was to enable those who follow, whereas its failing is that the direction it outlines should have been mapped out by those with experience of delivering in the new world of data. Our national data strategy would have been better if it had been led by practitioners, led by the doers within government with real-world experience of getting things done.

Over recent years the cost of storing and processing data has fallen to commodity levels, leading to the emergence of a wave of new possibility. The Treasury recognised these new opportunities in their 2018 paper “The economic value of data”.  The importance of data in addressing big issues like climate change and healthcare outcomes has also emerged. The role of data is prominent in government white papers like “Powering our net zero future” and “Working together to improve health and social care for all”.

The very first mention of data in the healthcare whitepaper makes a good point loudly: “The response to Covid-19 – led by those who know best – has shown us new ways to deliver care using innovative and creative solutions, exploiting the potential of digital and data, instead of needless bureaucracy. We must not go back to the old ways of working. The gains made through these new approaches must be locked in”. For the avoidance of doubt, it is the value of practitioners and doers that is being shouted about loudly here.

The absence of practitioners in producing the National Data Strategy is stark. Missing is an explanation of how the many different data strategies across government will fit together. Also missing is commentary about the building blocks of interoperability, where blind spots include data infrastructure, data architecture, and the significant omission of geospatial data. There are some nods to geospatial data in case studies, but disappointingly there is no mention of the new Public Sector Geospatial Agreement (PGSA) or the recent Geospatial Strategy.

If the National Data Strategy had been practitioner led, it is difficult to imagine that it would have been silent on these aspects of practical importance. Would these glaring omissions have been made, if the lessons of delivering the new Blue Badge service for disabled parking had been learned? The Blue Badge service needed to put in place 206 separate data processing agreements with each of the local authorities. Citizens are now much better served, a Blue Badge application has reduced from taking 17 days to just minutes. However, the next public service that wants to do something similar will not find anything easier. The National Data Strategy does not cover a cross-government data architecture, with common data standards across departments and local government, thus the criteria for common data processing agreements will not be resolved.

In other areas, data collection duplication is identified as one of six main causes of bureaucracy in health and social care. It is also known that this problem could be resolved through better data sharing. Yet the National Data Strategy only comments on a single aspect of data sharing between analysts and does not cover data sharing between different user groups, such as those in operational roles, or sharing between cross-government data services.

Zühlke interviewed practitioners from across a range of different public sector organisations to provide feedback to help. The two topic areas that public sector doers commented on most heavily, were data sharing and data interoperability. To practitioners the failings of the National Data Strategy are obvious. Perhaps our doers are the best people to now fix these omissions?

You can download a copy of Zühlke’s response to the National Data Strategy at:

Feedback on the National Data Strategy continues to be collated at: [email protected]

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