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Conditions ‘not quite there’ for government chief data officer

The long-awaited appointment for government’s chief data officer requires a perception in departments that data is actually valuable, government officials said

The conditions are “not quite there yet” for the appointment of a chief data officer (CDO) for government, senior officials admitted at a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) session.

The reasons why a CDO hasn’t yet been hired were among the points outlined by civil service chief executive John Manzoni and permanent secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Sarah Healey at a PAC inquiry into challenges around use of data in government and what actions are being taken to tackle them.

Lack of leadership is often cited as one of the main problems the UK government faces in terms of making the National Data Strategy (NDS) work in practice. The government has been unsuccessful in recruiting someone for the job, which was first advertised in 2017.

“Government needs a chief data officer,” Manzoni said in the PAC session, adding that “nine departments now have chief data officers”, but there is no CDO looking across all of government.

“We said we would hire a CDO in 2017, and then said we would do it in 2020 – we are not there yet, but we haven’t hired one in two years. The reason is that up until fairly recently, I felt that the conditions for success for the appointment were not quite there.”

Manzoni indicated that the position would likely be filled by an outside candidate – and the last thing the government wants is to see such a senior appointment failing, so it allowed the data landscape to develop further.

“This is why we gave ourselves some space [between] 2017 to 2020,” added Manzoni. “The conditions around this are changing and the need being felt across government for ‘someone to please come sort this out’ is much clearer now than it was two years ago.”

Core issues cited by Manzoni and Healey that are hampering use of data in government include quality of data and the adoption of consistent application of standards that enable information sharing across governments in a simplified manner, rather than creating workarounds.

Overcoming cultural barriers is another problem, so developing “an appreciation of what benefits are” and a “keenness to adjust” to working with data is a must. According to Manzoni, “there is a greater understanding” across departments, but government is “not quite there yet”.

Healey noted that the government has been working to raise the profile of data as an asset, and highlight the upsides of using it, through mechanisms such as data accelerators and advisory boards.

“We do well in getting people who have done those [data] projects to talk to other people in departments. [Showing] how individuals have done it can be a very big motivator to [remove] some of those barriers,” she added.

The secretary also noted that the appointment of CDOs in departments and the still-to-be-hired CDO in central government will “hugely assist” departments in giving them confidence they have the elements needed to use data effectively.

“Inevitably, [communicating the importance of] data and ensuring people feel confident about entering into data-sharing arrangements will be an ongoing task,” she said.

Many of the aspects of the CDO job, who will be chairing the government’s data advisory board to oversee the execution of the National Data Strategy (NDS) across departments, will become clearer as work around the overall plan progresses. This includes points such as whether this future leader will sit in the DCMS or in the Cabinet Office.

“[Manzoni] and I just need to have a sensible decision between us – we should do that reflecting on where we get to in the initial work on the NDS, because the CDO’s job will be to implement the government aspect of that, so we need to determine about where [the CDO would] best sit to enable [them] to succeed in doing that,” Healey said.

“Obviously, departmental boundaries matter. But this is also about working together sensibly and collaborating on implementing the agreed strategy across government,” she added.

Progress stalled by Brexit

It has also emerged during the PAC session that progress of the NDS has been delayed as the DCMS made the decision to focus on Brexit–related projects.

According to Healey, the department moved 10 staff who were dedicated to the strategy and paused that workstream for four months to deal with matters related to data protection the departure from the EU.

“We would have liked to have made more progress on the National Data Strategy than we have up to this point,” Healey said.

However, Healey pointed out that data protection activity carried out for no-deal Brexit planning purposes included consulting departments to get a better understanding of the data that they had available that was relevant to EU exit and what governance they had in place to oversee their use of data.

Another upside, Healey added, was that the DCMS sought to build good relationships with these departments and the people managing data within them.

“Even though some of the actual direct work on the strategy was therefore paused for a period of time, the work that that team was doing was genuinely helpful for the work that they’re now actively pursuing following the call for evidence,” she said.

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