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Government response to National Data Strategy consultation depicts data as ‘asset, not threat’

Government responds to consultation with a promise of delivery, putting an emphasis on data as an asset, not a threat, and finding respondents keen on levelling up

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Making data an asset, not a threat

The government has responded to its National Data Strategy consultation by putting an emphasis on “data as an asset” rather than a “threat to be managed”, and pledging delivery as the next step.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) originally published guidance for the strategy in July 2019 – when Theresa May was still prime minister. It has preceded and outlasted the tenure of her successor’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who is well known as a data enthusiast.

In September 2020, the strategy was published, but as a work in progress, dependent on further consultation.

The newest document, published today, conveys government feedback on consultation undertaken between 9 September and 9 December 2020, received in the form of written responses to questions from 282 sources, including IT suppliers.

The new document says the September 2020 document “brought together our ambitions for data within a single, coherent narrative”, adding: “Published as a consultation, the National Data Strategy was not intended as the final answer, but as part of a conversation about how we approach and use data in the UK.”

The strategy has four pillars, described in September and today as: data foundations, data skills, data availability and responsible data use. Above the pillars are “five missions” – “to unlock the value of data held across the economy, secure a pro-growth and trusted data regime, transform government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services, ensure the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data use relies, and champion the international flow of data”.

Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for DCMS, writes in the foreword to the new document: “Having left the European Union, we can capitalise on the UK’s independent status and repatriated powers in pursuit of the data opportunity. That includes having the freedom to strike our own international data partnerships with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and I will shortly announce our priority countries for those data adequacy agreements.

“This document sets out in more detail our plans to use the framework outlined in the National Data Strategy to deliver this bold new approach, in such a way that builds public trust and ensures that the opportunities from better data use work for everyone, everywhere. Our new National Data Strategy Forum will ensure that a diverse range of perspectives continue to inform the strategy’s implementation.”

The document says: “Many respondents [to the government’s survey questions] … recognised the need to rebalance the narrative on data use. This means moving away from thinking about data use primarily as a threat to be managed, and instead recognising data as an asset that, used responsibly, can deliver economic and public benefits across the UK.”

The National Data Strategy Forum will be chaired by the DCMS minister for media and data, John Whittingdale, and TechUK director Sue Daley.

Levelling up

It interprets respondents as keen on the government’s “levelling up” agenda, saying: “Respondents identified an opportunity for the National Data Strategy to support all parts of the UK to level up. Some respondents described how better data availability at the local level could drive innovation, productivity gains and public service improvements across all parts of the UK, while others noted how data can be used to evaluate levelling-up initiatives.”

It also highlights the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s (CDEI) report on local government use of data during the pandemic as showing that “effective data sharing can support local-level public service improvements”.

In policy terms, the document draws attention to an intention to consider “the role of data intermediaries in supporting responsible data-sharing, and how government can intervene to support their adoption, building on the Ada Lovelace Institute and AI Council joint report, Legal mechanisms for data stewardship”.

It adds: “As part of this, we will support the Open Data Institute’s work on data institutions – organisations whose purpose involves stewarding data on behalf of others – to create an environment that supports existing data institutions in the public, private and third sectors and is conducive to innovation around new forms of data intermediaries such as data trusts and data cooperatives.”

The consultation also asked for views on a bigger future role for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

The government’s response indicates changes to come: “Following two-and-a-half years of successful operation, we are in the process of recruiting for a new chair and refreshed board, to lead the centre in its next phase. We will announce the new leadership of the centre in due course, alongside further detail about how the CDEI will continue to support the government’s delivery of the National Data Strategy priorities in future.”

The document also notes: “Respondents recommended sharpening the regime’s focus on outcomes and risks, rather than burdensome paperwork that can misdirect resources away from activities that keep personal information safe. They underlined the need for a flexible regime that keeps pace with technological change, as well as the importance of clear, more specific guidance or rules to reduce uncertainty and vagueness.”

Read more about the National Data Strategy

In relation to the international flow of data, the document says: “The US and EU were identified as priority countries with whom to secure adequacy arrangements. Japan, South Korea, Canada, New Zealand and Australia were also commonly cited, while several respondents called upon the UK to explore potential arrangements with emerging markets in Africa, the Middle East, South America and the Indian subcontinent.”

The government response, expressed in the document, is that “having left the European Union, we have the opportunity to use the new UK Adequacy Assessment capability to strike our own data partnerships with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. We look forward to announcing our priority countries for a data adequacy agreement shortly”. 

In terms of government data, and the nub of the problem to which the National Data Strategy is, in part, a proposed solution, Sue Bateman, deputy director for innovation at the Cabinet Office, told a Think Data for Government conference last week: “Government collects and manages lots of data, but it is still not used or shared well. We have been lacking consistency in data standards – they tend to be done in sectors and in silos.

“And while we have been investing in infrastructure, systems have not always been interoperable. There are also legal barriers, whether legislative or of interpretation, and cultural barriers around sharing, a nervousness. And we’ve got historic challenges around leadership and understanding of data.”

Bateman also indicated five areas in which the government was looking to make progress on its own data: quality, availability and access; standards and assurance; capability, leadership and culture; accountability and leadership; and ethics and public trust.

Under the heading of mission three, about transforming the government’s own use of data, the document cites as progress the appointment of the chair and executive director for and creation of a new Central Digital and Data Office to drive forward digital, data and technology transformation across government.

The new National Data Strategy document concludes: “Going forward, our focus will shift to implementation – delivering across the strategy’s five key missions as priority areas of action.”

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