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Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock calls for 'data culture' across government

The government wants to move towards a 'data culture' to make better spending decisions, says minister responsible for digital reform, Matt Hancock

Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock has called for a “data culture” across government to help make better decisions on where best to spend money on an austerity budget.

In only his second public speech since succeeding Francis Maude in the job after the general election, Hancock said the government wants to make better use of data to drive decision-making in real time.

“Digital technology means it’s much easier to hold a genuine iterative dialogue with the users of public services,” he told delegates at an event in London organised by the Reform thinktank.

“This sort of data is important when designing services, but it’s a crucial driver of reform too. As TripAdvisor showed the tourism industry, the sunlight of transparency, mass feedback and the ability to choose your service provider drives up standards and gives customers a better deal. From healthcare, to schools, to crime maps, open data is informing citizens about the choices that they make,” he said.

“So instead of a target culture we are moving to a data culture, where we use data analysis to guide the service in real time.”

Investing in data to cut spending

Hancock said the government is adopting an “invest to save” approach, where money is spent only if it delivers savings. He said using big data and data science is critical to making sure the money is spent effectively.

“To have an effective invest-to-save proposition, it’s critical the data demonstrates you’re going to get the savings. This is one of the really exciting opportunities for the use of big data that unlocks these sorts of propositions. You can be much more scientific using data science on the likelihood of how you get success,” he said.

“Once you can be objective and data-driven it makes it much easier to unlock those sorts of propositions, because there is an understandable scepticism about whether the spending is going to deliver those savings.”

Hancock is now the minister responsible for the Government Digital Service (GDS), whose director Mike Bracken was given the additional role of chief data officer shortly before the election. Hancock said better use of technology is key to public service reform.

“Technology marches on. The businesses that have thrived in an online age have done so not just by winning on quality and price, but on choice and convenience too,” said Hancock.

“I’m not saying private is good and public bad - far from it. There are plenty of dreadful private services. But our aim in public services should be to be the best. And the point is that, by harnessing technology and excellent service, the best keeps on getting better. So the case is clear: Government can transform its performance.”

Read more about government and open data

Hancock holds up GDS platform model as the way forward

The Cabinet Office minister highlighted the GDS “government as a platform” strategy as one example of how reform will be delivered.

Gov.uk has brought 1,882 websites into a single portal, saving over £60m a year, making information and services quicker and easier to find. We’re now scaling up this approach, and this is where the idea of ‘government as a platform’ comes in. Instead of each department custom building every component they need to deliver a service, we’re working across government to build a common set of plumbing, core digital building blocks which departments can re-use,” he said.

The previous government also emphasised open data to help improve public service delivery – but the effectiveness of the policy was hampered by poor data quality and difficulties in producing data in standard usable formats.

"Civil servants just don't have the skills. They don't understand the difference between good and bad data,” a representative of the Open Data Institute told Computer Weekly in August 2014.

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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