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Government must ‘stop choosing ignorance’ around data

In a letter to digital secretary Jeremy Wright, civil society groups warn that a number of shortcomings must be addressed to enable the government to reap data-related benefits

Civil society groups warned that the government must “stop choosing ignorance” by failing to make investments in a number of areas around data and reap benefits to its own operations and public service delivery.

A letter to the secretary of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Jeremy Wright – undersigned by groups including the Open Data Institute, the Open Knowledge Foundation and innovation foundation Nesta – acknowledged that progress has been made across government when it comes to data, but problems remain.

The letter was also addressed to the head of the National Data Strategy (NDS), Gaia Marcus, and deputy director of the data strategy, policy and ethics, Erika Lewis. It stated that, coupled with the upcoming Spending Review, the NDS is an opportunity for the UK to set out its long-term data ambitions.

“The National Data Strategy must go beyond public services. Government’s role is broader than the delivery of public services; it can help shape how data is used across the whole of society through interventions such as research funding, procurement rules, regulatory activities and legislation,” the letter stated.

“The strategy must recognise this and describe how government will make data work for everyone in the UK,” it added.

However, the strategy “must deliver transformative, rather than incremental, change”, the letter stated, adding that the national data plan must be a long-term endeavour for government, with a vision for at least the next decade along with practical steps to turn any future vision into reality.

Such ambitions may be unfulfilled if there is a lack of sustained strategic leadership on data, the letter warned. This is an issue that had been previously outlined in a recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Echoing the NAO’s concerns, the organisations stated the government must “get leadership from the very top if it is to get a grip on data”.

Support, the letter argued, must come from the prime minister and the most senior levels of government to deliver the NDS and ensure compliance.

Signatories of the letter sent to government urging it to adopt a sharper focus on data:

  • Gavin Freeguard – Programme director and head of data and transparency for Institute for Government.
  • Rachel Rank – CEO of 360Giving.
  • Will Moy – Chief executive of Full Fact.
  • Bobby Duffy – Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London.
  • Mark Cridge – Chief executive of mySociety.
  • Geoff Mulgan – Chief executive of Nesta.
  • Gavin Hayman – Executive director of Open Contracting Partnership.
  • Jeni Tennison – Chief executive of Open Data Institute.
  • Catherine Stihler – Chief executive of Open Knowledge Foundation.
  • Thom Townsend –Executive director of OpenOwnership.
  • Hetan Shah – Executive director of Royal Statistical Society.

The strategy must be enforced across government too, the letter said, adding that too often departments have conflicting agendas that prevent data from being used effectively. It also argued that local government bodies should also be empowered to make more efficient use of data.

Issues around infrastructure must be tackled to enable better use of data and investment in data literacy skills to turn data into actionable insight is also needed, the organisations noted.

The letter stated that unique open identifiers should be introduced “to help those inside government [so that] those outside government can make the most of government data”.

A mechanism to enable decision makers, data users and the public to be involved in the NDS must also be put into place, the organisations noted, with debates taking place on an ongoing basis.

In addition, the letter raised the topic of trust. It stressed that public trust should be earned by talking to citizens about the extent to which their data should be used in government.

“But this will only be possible, sustainable, secure and ethical with appropriate safeguards, transparency, mitigation of risks and public support,” the letter noted.

The DCMS has published guidance which sets out the approach from the government in relation to building the NDS. This includes a two-phased consultation focused on evidence building, stakeholder engagement and testing the strategic framework.

A full consultation, open to everyone, will start in the autumn of 2019, the DCMS said. The objective is to deliver the final strategy and a partnership action plan in 2020.

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