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Data challenges jeopardise service provision in government

Several challenges have to be tackled to make the government’s new data strategy work and departments have “barely scratched the surface” of what needs to be done, says PAC report

Disparate processes for managing data, lack of standards, legacy IT and fragmented leadership are among the many challenges still to be tackled around using data in government, a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report has found.

The various issues lead to failings in public service delivery, the report argued, as well as poor decision-making and an inability to understand which areas require improvement.

“The government has barely scratched the surface of what it needs to do so it can use data to deliver joined-up public services and increase efficiency,” the report noted. “This will not be a quick or simple task as there are significant challenges.”

Government departments have increased their use of data, but are left to their own devices when it comes to the creation of management systems, according to the PAC report, and data has not been treated as a valuable asset, so workarounds have become normal.

Lack of leadership is the first issue listed in the report. While noting that the Cabinet Office said it had not hired a chief data officer yet because it wanted conditions for success, the report argued that government should make the appointment “as a matter of urgency” before developing a data strategy.

On the data strategy itself, which is due to be published in 2020, the report argued that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Cabinet Office have made little progress, for reasons that include the decision to focus on Brexit-related projects. The departments that own responsibility for data have not committed to any specific timescales either, and the PAC now wants details on dates and priorities.

The report also noted that the DCMS and Cabinet Office’s way to introduce good use of data and sharing was too soft and that it should mandate a consistent approach, focused on compliance and holding departments to account.

The lack of useful standards to support effective use of data in government was another issue outlined in the report, which recommended that the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service (GDS) should develop a list of the top 10 data standards that departments would benefit from.

Legacy IT was also listed among the challenges around making effective use of data in government. The PAC report argued that systems should be modified or replaced to allow bodies to use data better, with any system replacements giving full consideration to data.

In parallel to tackling these challenges, the government needs to uphold the public’s trust in how it uses citizen data and help departments use data in an ethical way, the report noted.

However, the PAC report stressed the need for leadership to make the government’s data ambitions become a reality. “Government-wide improvements depend on persistent and firm pressure from the centre of government, or this new [data] strategy will become another missed opportunity,” it said.

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