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DCMS loses government data policy to the Cabinet Office

Prime minister Boris Johnson has taken away responsibility for the government use of data from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and given it to the Cabinet Office

In a move indicating a tightening of grip by 10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson has announced that responsibility for government use of data has transferred from the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Cabinet Office.

He did so on the day that Parliament was packing its bags for the summer recess.

This reverses the policy of Theresa May’s government, which took government data policy out of the hands of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2018, and gave it to DCMS. This was also snuck out at recess commencement time – in that case at Easter.

At the time, former GDS leading lights, such as Mike Bracken and Stephen Foreshew-Cain, lamented the move as betokening, in Bracken’s words, the “end of central UK authority for digital, data and technology”.

The present move follows hard on the heels of the government’s announcement of the creation of a new analytical unit at Number 10, 10ds. The head of the new unit will be tasked with “establishing No10's quantitative ability, helping to drive change across Whitehall through … 10 ‘Data Science’”. It is hoped they will have “expert technical expertise including in data engineering and statistical and machine learning technique [sic]”.

The government has had high hopes before, publishing guidance for a National Data Strategy in July 2019 which has yet to emerge. And the Cabinet Office has yet to recruit a government chief data officer despite announcing intention its intention to do so in 2017.

The national data strategy was retarded by the election. Some workshops to help build the strategy were announced in October and postponed in November because of the December election. The government still intends to unveil the full strategy in 2020.

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As for the prospective chief data officer, in October 2019, Simon Hart, minister for implementation at the Cabinet Office, stated the continued intention to recruit a CDO, as well as a permanent secretary-level chief digital information officer (CDIO), which was announced in September 2019. That CDIO is also still yet to be appointed.

Data, and more specifically data analytics, seems to be at the heart of the programme for Whitehall transformation that the prime minister’s special adviser Dominic Cummings harbours.

At the start of 2020, Cummings issued a call for “assorted weirdos” to join him in using data science to change the ways the UK state works.

More recently, Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, opined in Computer Weekly on how data – now that it has proved its spurs in the Covid-19 pandemic crisis – will take its place at the heart of the delayed national data strategy.

However, part of the change to the architecture of the government’s data analysis capability that Cummings is pushing through is the removal of responsibility for data from Dowden and his department.

It is to be hoped that Dowden’s expressed wish that the strategy “will build on the foundations that proved so effective throughout the Covid-19 pandemic” will survive its relocation to the purview of Number 10.

In Whitehall bureaucracy terms, the government has indeed rethought its relationship with data, but surely not in a manner that Dowden would have anticipated.

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