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Data policy move to DCMS causes mixed reactions

Some believe Theresa May handing over government data policy responsibility to DCMS is “downgrading digital government” while others see it as a positive move

Moments before the government took a break for Easter recess, prime minister Theresa May decided to drop a bombshell: government data policy and governance now belongs to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).  

Although it wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise – rumours of the Government Digital Service (GDS) losing control of data policy have been in the works for a while – it’s a significant, and certainly controversial, move.

Sources close to the change told Computer Weekly that the move was not a surprise, as “GDS has shown a lack of leadership and capability for some time”, adding that “far too much of the data agenda has been all talk without substance” and that someone needs to take ownership and ensure progress is made. 

Whether or not the move is simply shuffling resources from one department to another, or whether something actually gets delivered, is yet to be seen. 

It has certainly received mixed reactions on social media so far, with some seeing it as a move to weaken GDS. Computer Weekly understands the Cabinet Office has resisted the move, and moving data policy away from GDS has made many people unhappy.

Over the Easter weekend, several took to Twitter to express their disappointment. Former GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain said that although it didn’t come as a surprise, and was an “anticipated and entirely avoidable decline”.

He added: “Cowardly to announce this way. And mostly poor stewardship of the amazing delivery teams that have worked so incredibly hard to deliver real change over the years at GDS.” 

Another former GDS boss, Mike Bracken, said on Twitter that this marked the “end of central UK authority for digital, data and technology”.

Benefits of the data economy

Announcing the move in a written statement on 29 March, the prime minister said it would help the government to fully realise “the benefits of the data economy”.

“The expanded DCMS brings together in one place data policy for both government and the wider economy,” she said.

“GDS will continue its work supporting the ongoing digital transformation of government, building digital capability in the civil service and championing service design across government to meet user needs.”

A DCMS spokesperson said data policy across government would be consolidated in DCMS. “This includes data sharing, better use of data in government and open data,” the spokesperson said. “The move complements our existing policy work on data protection, data ethics, free flows of data and the value of the data economy.”

Commenting on the announcement on Twitter, former GDS staffer Tom Loosemore said: “So UK government data policy is now in the weakest and most easily ignored department, derided as the Department of Fun by the rest of Whitehall. Why? Egos, I’m afraid.” 

But not everyone sees it as a bad move. Simon Wardley, researcher for Leading Edge Forum, said that GDS is “dying in the Cabinet Office” and that the move to DCMS “gives data policy a chance”.

The Institute for Government’s (IfG) head of data and transparency, Gavin Freeguard, also sees it as a positive move. He said that despite the UK making a lot of progress on data, “there are still too many instances of departments not using data to understand and improve what they do, and too many instances of the public not having the data it needs to hold government to account”.

Freeguard added that “bringing government data policy together [under DCMS] provides an opportunity to revitalise it”. 

“DCMS taking over data policy is a positive move, one that should bring political impetus to a vital subject that has slipped down the political agenda in recent years,” he said. 

Continuous power struggle

There has long been what appears to be a power struggle between DCMS and the Cabinet Office.

In the latest cabinet reshuffle, Margot James was confirmed as the new digital minister at DCMS after Matt Hancock was promoted to secretary of state, while the Cabinet Office saw its fourth minister responsible for GDS in the space of two years – Oliver Dowden.

Dowden, a junior minister, took over from former Cabinet Office parliamentary under-secretary Caroline Nokes, who herself was in the job for only about six months, having been appointed after the 2017 general election when former Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer lost his seat.

The move to make junior ministers responsible for GDS was seen by some at the time as a bit of a setback for digital government.

DCMS has long been keen to take on more responsibility and, according to rumours, the department has been doing some heavy lobbying to get data policy moved in its direction.

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, insiders have suggested that DCMS had grown increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of data policy at GDS.

Two former shadow ministers for the digital economy, Louise Haigh and Chi Onwurah, both tweeted their disappointment at the move. Haigh said it was a “shame” and “represents real downgrading of the digital government agenda”, while Onwurah vowed to discuss the matter with current shadow minister for digital, Liam Byrne. 

Privacy campaigner MedConfidential said earlier this year that moving data policy to DCMS would “not deliver trustworthy data policies across government”, but added that GDS was not delivering on that either.

“While this rearrangement may be a short-term improvement, Brexit delivery will require the use of Cabinet Office powers under effective leadership,” it said. “All other reasons entirely aside, it will have to move back within months.” 

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The same debate has been continuing about GDS flagship identity assurance programme Verify.

According to sources, DCMS is concerned with the slow progress of GDS’s Verify system and delays in finalising a commercial framework to allow private sector identity providers to develop services that accept Verify users, and the two are fighting for control of digital identity policy.  

As part of the data policy move, May also announced that the Cabinet Office has been given further responsibility under the changes, taking over geospatial data policy initiatives from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to support the work of the Geospatial Commission announced in last November’s Budget.

The IfG’s Freeguard said part of the challenge for Hancock at DCMS will be “to bridge data divides across Whitehall”. 

“Even as data policy heads away from the Cabinet Office to DCMS, geospatial data is heading over to the Cabinet Office,” he said. “Meanwhile, the head of profession for data, digital and technology in government remains at GDS. 

“Data science was not mentioned in last week’s statement, so one presumes that remains there, too. Data is intertwined with digital and technology, so GDS still has a vital role in implementation. DCMS and GDS will need to work closely together if the government is to have a coherent approach.”

Computer Weekly understands that several of the GDS data policy team are having their first day at DCMS today. ............................................................................................................. ......................................................................................

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