DWP IT chief outlines the challenges of establishing a Chief Data Office

According to DWP chief Katharine Purser, interoperability between government systems is one of the main barriers to improving the handling of data

As the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) advances its plan to make better use of data, its new Chief Data Office (CDO) is working around barriers such as systems interoperability and the cultural and organisational challenges relating to the evolution of the vision.

DWP Digital publicly launched its CDO on 15 October after establishing the function in April this year. Led by chief data officer Paul Lodge, the function follows a strategy compiled by DWP’s head of data strategy and enablement Katharine Purser. The aim of the CDO is to adopt a more strategic approach to data and improve the experiences of the millions of citizens accessing DWP services each year.

At a Digital Leaders webinar, Purser talked about the challenges of establishing the CDO to help staff understand the value of data and how it can be used to serve citizens, as well her vision for data in government and priorities for the DWP in that space.

Purser started the event by noting the sheer scale of the DWP’s data challenge. According to her, the department processes more than 200 terabytes of data, which continues to grow by around 10% a year.

The volume and diversity of that huge pool of data, with formats such as voice and video, is getting more pronounced, and has increased in size even further since the emergence of the pandemic to 1 petabyte, according to the department’s latest estimates.

“We’ve seen the volume of our customers double, and a 25% increase in staff numbers,” Purser said, in relation to the workforce boost to cope with the additional demand for services ranging from working and age support to disability and ill health benefits, such as Universal Credit, Carer’s Allowance and state pension.

“We use data every day to make critical decisions about individuals’ lives – about how much financial support they might be entitled to, whether that’s a statutory benefit or pension or child maintenance,” Purser said, adding that this usually happens at a point where people might be quite vulnerable. “The more we know about them, the more we can do to help and the better we can support them, and data helps us do that.”

With that background, Purser talked about the role of the chief data officer at the DWP. More generally, she noted there is “still an awful lot of scope to really understand” the role in organisations, and that it is worth recognising it might look rather different in the public and private sector.

“When I came into this post, just over two and a half years ago, I was only aware of about two or three other government departments that had chief data officers. And I don’t think that numbers have gone up much since,” she said, noting that the concept of a CDO is “definitely maturing” in UK government.

“We’ve recognised that it will help us as an organisation if we shape and define the difference between the job – which is delivering data services and products – from the [CDO] role which enables the whole enterprise to understand value and use data as a strategic asset,” said Purser.

Tackling challenges

One of the key challenges for the CDO function mentioned by Purser during her presentation is interoperability. According to the director, the department has created separate systems to cater for changes in government policy over time and that has created a significant barrier to advancing data use.

“Broadly speaking, data is not interoperable [in DWP]. Because we have different approaches to capturing and storing data, it means it can’t easily be used across multiple systems,” she said. “[Data] often needs to be transferred between systems manually or in large batches – it’s possible to do, and we do that, but it’s time consuming, costly and it’s prone to error.”

Data is “not well mastered” within DWP, she said, and collecting information through different systems and for disparate purposes means that data inconsistencies and duplications may occur.

“While we have the right piece of information for the purpose and we know that is true, we don’t have a systematic way to identify what the most recent piece of information that we have about someone,” Purser said, citing the example of citizens who have provided multiple addresses to the government.

The DWP “could get better” at using metadata, according to Purser, in terms of “how reliable that piece of information is, how much verification has been put around it, whether it was just simply reported verbally, or whether we’ve seen a piece of evidence that documents the veracity of that data”. The director noted that this could help in terms of understanding the quality of the data the DWP for different purposes.

Creating a strategy

To address those issues, the DWP created a strategy where data is treated as a strategic asset. “It’s about recognising data in the same way we think about money, people, buildings, technology, machinery, any other physical things that we think of as assets,” said Purser.

The Chief Data Office is aimed to becoming a mature and embedded function at DWP, which will act as as the authority for data enablement, governance and management. It is also aimed at developing an enterprise-wide understanding of how the department collects, consumes, organises, secures and uses its data, while helping people understand its value.

“It’s not necessarily about being the same every time, but having consistency that enables us to connect our data together faster and more easily across systems,” she said. “It is also about having an approach to modelling data and common metadata standards delivered through our data architecture capability and embedding it across our service delivery systems.

“For me, this is about establishing a business case for data quality improvement and focusing on where improvements on data quality can really drive tangible improvements in the service delivery, cost effectiveness, and really honing in numbers and making this happen,” the executive said.

It’s about recognising data in the same way we think about money, people, buildings – any other physical things we think of as assets
Katharine Purser, DWP

The strategy will see DWP rethinking its vision about what data it needs, and sourcing said data from the most appropriate place. According to Purser, this will see the department moving away from transferring large batches of data between systems towards transfers via methods such as application programming interfaces (APIs), making sure DWP only asks “the absolute minimum piece of information we need from customers”, while enforcing security and data protection standards.

According to Purser, the idea is to “push the boundaries” on advanced analytics and connected data across government to understand citizen needs and how they can be met. But this goes back to ensuring the organisation understands what it is doing with data.

“Putting data at the heart of our decision-making is really about data literacy, making sure everyone can understand how to use data to make decisions, while holding ourselves to high standards of ethics and embracing innovation,” she said.

Current and future priorities

Talking about priorities around the Chief Data Office function, Purser stressed that the data DWP holds is not the department’s, but it belongs to citizens in the UK and – in some cases – around the world, in an increasingly complex variety of formats.

The CDO’s main task is to handle that and utilise the data knowledge the DWP already has to advance the vision. “We do have pockets of expertise across the organisation about that they know how to look after data,” Purser said.

Since its inception, the CDO function has been focusing on data quality, compliance, consistency and sharing, as well as building data management policies. In the second half of 2021, the focus is on developing data quality improvement pilots, where some data quality problems have been identified, towards a bigger data quality framework and improvement programme.

According to Purser, DWP will take a strategic look at its approach to data acquisition. In the coming years, the idea is that the CDO function will “do much more to help everyone understand the value of data”, with literacy programmes, building expertise and influencing the strategic interchange of data across government. “But we must take it one step at a time,” she added.

The data ambitions at DWP are a “microcosm” of what needs to be done across government, Purser said, since systems were built for individual purposes and there are unique processes behind the applications, which add more complexity to the interoperability task.

“I’m interested in the strategic interchange of data for operational purposes and across government, and the work that we need to do to help develop a consistent approach to doing that. We’ve got an awful lot of work to get to that point, but that’s something that I’m interested in doing and talking to others about,” she said.

In relation to tips for establishing a Chief Data Office, Purser said that executives need a clear vision, but also be cognizant of the change that comes with a data focus and the fact that things might take longer than expected. “Don’t be constrained by that and recognise that it is a long journey,” she said. “It’s a cultural shift more than anything else.”

Moreover, Purser recommends thinking about risk and context. “When you think about some of the risks you might face with data that can look very scary, look at the bigger picture – there are some even scarier risks and even bigger problems that the organisation is focused on resolving,” she said, adding that this is helpful in terms of setting priorities.

Purser also mentioned taking note of the good work that has been done elsewhere during the presentation. “I shamelessly have drawn on data strategies from other government departments – imitation is the highest form of flattery,” she said.

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