The UK government’s weaponization of data analytics

Data analytics seems to have emerged as a cure-all for the current Conservative government.

Indeed, it is being positioned as a critical element in the wider revolution of Whitehall that Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s special adviser, is propounding.

One recent sign of this is a new job role, as reported in The Guardian on 11 July,  for the head of a Downing Street data analytics unit, to be known as 10 “data science” or 10ds.

And few will need reminding of Cummings’ infamous blogpost, seeking “assorted weirdos” to enlist in the civil service, published at the onset of 2020. In it he called for “unusual” data scientists and software developers to join his effort to fundamentally reshape how the UK state works.

(As an aside, why Neo4j, when other graph databases are available, was cited as one of the tools with which successful candidates would need to be conversant was one of the many oddities of this screed, which was discussed on the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast. But that is, admittedly, a minor quibble. No disrespect to Neo4j).

More fundamentally, does the prominence being accorded data analytics by this government signal an intellectual breakthrough in the remaking of the UK state? How novel is it?

For this is not the first time a Conservative political project has tried to appropriate the discipline of data analytics.

10 years of open data in government

Just over ten years ago, the Coalition government vaunted the opening up of public sector data for social and economic good.

On 31st May 2010, the recently installed Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to all government departments telling them to open up their data. It was a letter likely to command easy assent from the Liberal Democrats. And would most probably have had the approval of the deposed former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Indeed, the latter had been engaged, in the previous decade, in discussions with Nigel Shadbolt and his co-thinkers about setting up what eventually became the Open Data Institute.

In his letter of 31 May 2010, Cameron wrote: “Greater transparency across government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account; to reduce the deficit and deliver better value for money in public spending; and to realise significant economic benefits by enabling businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites using public data”.

Cameron devotes a few pages of his 732-page 2019 autobiography For the Record to open data and digital technology. In those pages he is keen to distinguish his government’s approach to digital from Blair’s and Brown’s, whose governments he deprecates as “analogue”.

In what reads more like an act of political market positioning than the statement of an objective understanding of the value of open data and digital technology, Cameron writes: “Labour’s thirteen years in power had coincided with the rise of the internet, yet their approach to this increasingly digital age was pretty analogue”. He refers to the merging of 1,700 government-related websites into gov.uk an example of his digital revolution.

And he goes on: “it was [now] time for ‘open data’. Francis [Maude] published a tidal wave of information online – Ordnance survey maps, obesity data, local crime figures, real-time transport informatoni, and all government spending over £25,000”. (pp. 212-3).

Heady stuff.

In a recent interview with Computer Weekly, following a DTX Talks Q&A, Nigel Shadbolt, Principal of Jesus College Oxford, and a long-time advocate of open data, gave Cameron his due, but also put his claims into some context.

“Data.gov.uk was launched in January 2010, under the Labour government. The power of information review which [Tom] Steinberg and others led was also under Blair’s government.

“I remember the conversation with Francis Maude before they came to power, saying they wanted to take the commitments made [under Labour] further.

“What Cameron can lay claim to is that letter was to all departments. He basically took the public data principles that Tim [Berners-Lee] and I had been working on with the previous administration and said ‘this will be the default’. But that would have been the direction of travel under a Labour government, too”.

Shadbolt and Berners-Lee were appointed information advisers in 2009 with a mandate to advance open data, with help from Jeremy Heywood in the Cabinet Office, he recounts.

What has been achieved over the past 10 years? “It’s nothing like all there could be”, said Shadbolt. “We can point to huge successes in spatial data being made available, data from Companies House, health, education, and transport data.

“One of the areas that is unfinished business is where we integrate central and local government data, and much local authority data is still in a form that is not easy to publish. Some key data assets were privatized that should never have been so, like the post code address file.

“And, to be fair, some of the key bits we need to complete a national data infrastructure is held by private corporations, so we need to have that conversation”.

Open data in government overview

From Whitehall’s point of view, what has been achieved on the open data front after 10 years of Coalition and Conservative government?

The Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport has, on request, provided Computer Weekly with a useful overview. There is this 2015 policy paper, which outlines the Coalition Government’s actions to achieve a more open, transparent government.

In 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May wrote a letter to Cabinet Ministers underlining the importance of government transparency and open data. Also in that year, the government published a government transformation strategy setting out  it would use digital to transform the relationship between the citizen and state.

And in 2019, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport published guidance for a National Data Strategy setting out how the government pledges to support the UK to build a world-leading data economy.

The DCMS also flagged a cross-government blog which shows some of the impressive work data scientists are already doing “to improve service delivery and policy outcomes, and our work to find, access and use open government data”.

Why politicize data analytics?

Much, then, has evidently been achieved under the banner of open data in government. And the latest push to put data analytics in the driving seat of a transformation of the UK civil service will undoubtedly register some more advances.

But why politicize it? And why weaponize it in a war against the upper echelons of the civil service? A “hard rain” is about to fall on the mandarins The Times recently reported.

But, as Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell points out in a Guardian podcast with Anoushka Asthana, you won’t get far in making changes to the British state by antagonizing the very people you are relying on to deliver those changes.

Powell also convincingly make the point that there is nothing new in this Cummings and Michael Gove revolution in any case, the central tenets of which were there in Harold Wilson’s programme in the 1960s, as embodied in the 1968 Fulton Report – taking the civil service out of London, and employing more technicians and statisticians in the spirit of the “white heat of the technological revolution”.

Gove and Gramsci – an odd couple

The leveraging of data analytics is part of the agenda for state reconfiguration announced in Michael Gove’s (thoughtful and well written) Ditchley Park speech lecture of 1st July 2020:

“Government needs to evaluate data more rigorously and that means opening up data so others can judge the effectiveness of programmes as well. We need proper challenge from qualified outsiders.

“If Government ensures its departments and agencies share and publish data far more, then data analytics specialists can help us more rigorously to evaluate policy successes and delivery failures. People’s privacy of course must be protected. But once suitably anonymised, it is imperative that we learn the hugely valuable lessons that lie buried in our data.

“We also need to ask in those areas where our data is world class, as with the NHS, how we can use that to power scientific breakthroughs. Suitably anonymised, as I say, the deep and broad pool of health data we have can improve diagnostics and treatment, support life science innovation and close the health inequality gap.

“And, perhaps most importantly, Government must also ask itself if its people have the skills necessary for the challenges that I have set out.

“For many decades now we have neglected to ensure the Civil Service has all the basic skills required to serve Government, and our citizens, well.

“There are many brilliant people in our civil service, and I have never come across any civil servant who did not want to do his or her best for the country. But, nevertheless, there are a limited number, even in the Senior Civil Service, who have qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions – and these are essential to public policy decisions. As governments in developed nations go, we in the UK are lagging behind many others in terms of numerical proficiency. But so many policy and implementation decisions depend on understanding mathematical reasoning.

“That means we need to reform not just recruitment, but training. We need to ensure more policy makers and decision makers feel comfortable discussing the Monte Carlo method or Bayesian statistics, more of those in Government are equipped to read a balance sheet and discuss what constitutes an appropriate return on investment, more are conversant with the commercial practices of those from whom we procure services and can negotiate the right contracts and enforce them appropriately”.

There is an irony here that Gove is a Humanities graduate, just as Cummings and Boris Johnson are, and all from the same university.

It is not that he is wrong to emphasize the importance of data science (or statistics, to put it less pretentiously). It is more that it is highly plausible to say that he (and Cummings) are over-impressed by a field they have not studied at degree level. And under-appreciative of the education they were themselves privileged to receive. And so, possibly, missing a degree of perspective. The grass is always greener.

Gove – not untypically for someone, of his vintage, with a degree in English from Oxford – began his lecture with a quote from Antonio Gramsci, co-founder and leader of the Italian Communist Party, whose surreptitious and necessarily cryptic writings in an Italian Fascist prison have kept Marxian exegetes busy ever since their publication after the Second World War – though knowledge of Gramsci in Britain was scant until his prison letters and then (some of) his prison notebooks were published in the 1970s.

Gove said: “Writing in his Prison Notebooks, ninety years ago, the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci defined our times. ‘The crisis consists precisely of the fact that the inherited is dying – and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’”. It’s an interesting quote, often seen on T-shirts.

One suspects, however, that Michael Gove knows as much about Gramsci as Dominic Cummings knows about data analytics.

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