Where is the strategy in the National Data Strategy?

Who is the presiding genius behind the National Data Strategy? Who is its architect? What are its goals? And what will it have achieved in five years’ time?

That the government has responded to the respondents to its consultation of September to December 2020 is to be welcomed. There is a lot of detail in the core strategy document, which has had a long life on the gov.uk web site, reaching back into 2019. And the vision, as expressed in that document, is clear: the government wants to change the national data narrative from hand wringing about data as a vulnerable thing to be protected against threats to something should be exploited to add to the gross domestic product of the national economy. One can disagree with that as a high-level vision (and there are privacy advocates who’d blanch at it), but I think that is a fair expression of it, and it is clear, as far as it goes, albeit at 60,000 feet.

As to what that misty vision will look like in actuality, and how we get there? That is not clear.

Like the National Data Strategy itself, this blogpost is a work in progress. I have had a few briefings in recent months that register unease about what the strategy of the NDS amounts to – amidst plaudits for the government, in at least setting off on the journey.

Peter Campbell, AI practice lead, Kainos has welcomed the publication of the government’s response to the consultation exercise but expressed disappointment that there was no headline of heft to grip on to. Kainos together with Faculty was one of the 282 respondents to the consultation’s 20 questions.

“They’ve made a really good beginning”, he said. “But it’s a journey still, and they are still at the concept and planning stage. And the fact that it is iterative, it’s not a fixed plan, is good. But it is missing the key headline. There is no stand out, clear ambition statement that says what it will achieve, with a time-frame around it. It’s great as a focus to say: ‘data is an asset, not a threat’, but I was hoping to hear more about how valuable the asset is, across private and public sectors, and how we can realise value from it, in terms of impact on GDP”.

In an earlier conversation with me, he commented on a lack of central strategic ownership of the strategy. “The strategy and the consultation is really pleasing. It is an opportunity for data to become a first-class citizen, with a seat at the table for priorities in government. To match that, you would expect there to be a Minister who is responsible and accountable for ensuring that we deliver. There is a gap there. A chief data officer would help, but there has to be political ownership to drive in forward, as there was with Francis Maude and digital” [in the first years of the Coalition government, elected in 2010].

Of the updated strategy document, he said there is a lot of good detail under the covers, which is not reflected in the high-level summation: “for example, in the table at the end around responsibilities. There are actions in there that I was happy to see, such as a data maturity model for government departments and agencies, the legal regime for data sharing and more about the innovative data platform.

“And the Digital Markets Unit – that’s a strong highlight that sets a strong steer that that government is going to legislate for a smart data agenda for other industries, which I think is fantastic”.

He also welcomed the National Data Strategy Forum that was announced in connection with the publication of the response to the consultation. “That’s the positive part of the ongoing consultation process and the ongoing development of the of the strategy”.

More negatively, he thinks the skills piece of the strategy is weak, especially regarding data science education in schools, which had been a signal part of their own submission.

Not enough doers

In another interview about the National Data Strategy, I spoke with Dan Klein, director, solution centre, and Jonathan Cook, business development director at Zühlke, a software engineering firm which, among other things, designed the NHS contact tracing app. This interview was before the publication of the government’s response to the consultation, in which Zühlke, like Kainos had participated.

The gist of what they said was that there are too many talkers and not enough doers in respect of the strategy. There is, they said, a cadre of around 100 data practitioners in government doing great work. But there are also bodies in and around government, which treat of data and ethics, “stuffed full of academics”. And a good deal of think tankery. (I’m paraphrasing).

From that conversation came a guest blogpost, by Dan Klein, in which he writes: “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”.

Now, the elaboration and delivery of a strategy to significantly increase the economic value of data, across the public and private sectors, and across a still-multinational economy, is not easy. It is a complex project about a complex thing.

And it does involve paradigm shift: from data seen primarily as something to be protected from harm to being understood primarily as an asset to be exploited – whilst personal data is safeguarded, it should go without saying.

However, there is evidently something getting in the way of effecting that shift and delivering it. Peter Campbell speculates there might be too many cooks spoiling the broth, but confesses we can only speculate about the reason.

But it would surely help if there was a government minister in charge of  this fundamental shift? Oliver Dowden provides the foreword to the strategy document, and emphasizes, as is his political right, the putative opportunities of Brexit and the chance to “build back better” after the Covid-19 pandemic, level up, and so on.

However, what Francis Maude once was to government digital strategy, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is probably not to the current National Data Strategy. Not with the Euros coming up anyway.

Which suggests another point. Of what nation is the National Data Strategy the strategy? Scotland has its own digital strategy and its own AI strategy. Wales, too, is investing in digital. And Northern Ireland, with its status as more connected to the EU than the rest of the UK, will be finding its path autonomously, too.

So, yes, we are at the start of the journey now. We’re in the car. But we’re far from being there yet.

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