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Taking back control of government data mustn’t leave the public in the dark

Boris Johnson has quietly transferred control over government data to Number 10, without explaining why. The public deserves more involvement in how their personal data is being used, says Labour

Quietly, and just as Parliament broke up for the summer, responsibility for government use of data transferred from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Cabinet Office. This may sound to many like a moot point of interest for technocrats, but for those of us who are believers in the incredible power of data and technology to improve public services, it throws up some fundamentally profound questions about where the UK heads next.

The Covid-19 pandemic should be making us all think hard about how data is used, shared and protected. Local councils being denied localised data has been a source of real frustration to hard-pressed local authority public health teams. Imagine how different things could have been over these last few months if those closest to the people at risk and in need were equipped with real-time insightful data from across different agencies and services.

Ten years on since the Conservatives first took power, data has transformed the private sector but government policy remains a mess when it comes to public sector data. I’ve long argued that this government’s approach to data has been incoherent and lacking in vision.

It’s been just two years since we were told there would be a new National Data Strategy, and, coincidently, two years since the responsibility for government data  moved from… the Cabinet Office to DCMS. The move back such a short time later has left many scratching their heads.

Progress on open data has been too slow, while  my recent questions to ministers about the future of Verify - the government’s digital identity scheme - and the Government Digital Service, were answered with obfuscation and evasion. We want the UK to lead the world on these areas. But in order to lead, you need leadership.

Machinery of government

The complete lack of transparency in the run up to this machinery of government change has been particularly troubling. It is described as ensuring that “government data is used most effectively to drive policy making and service delivery” – a laudable aim but where’s the detail? What’s the objective? It’s unclear to avid followers of data policy if this is tinkering round the edges or whether something more substantial is afoot.

What is it that the government now wants to do with our data that isn’t possible in DCMS, and wasn’t that the reason for moving it there just two years ago? How does this fit with recent reports of Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings’ designs for a new “10DS” data science unit?

Are we facing more years of a lack of coherent strategy when it comes to government data, or is this the start of the creation of a Downing Street Data Death Star. How does it fit with the National Data Strategy we were promised back in 2018? And why is all this happening without any public debate on how the government uses, stores and protects our data?

How the government uses data about us has implications for every part of public policy and public service delivery. But sadly, too often government thinks about Whitehall when it thinks about data policy.

An approach which believes all data must feed into some kind of central repository run by Downing Street misses the point on the vast opportunities that better and more joined-up data can do to improve public services at the level closest to the people that rely on those services.

Build public trust

In all the years the government has been mulling the data strategy, it has also been evangelising on how artificial intelligence will transform society. It’s difficult to see how they are going to do it without fixing the plumbing and having a frank and honest conversation with the public about what is involved.

What we’ve seen from successive governments is that it is absolutely essential to build public trust by having an open debate., the abandoned plan to share private medical records, was a prime example of what happens when things go wrong. Taking back control shouldn’t mean a Downing Street data grab. Public data must be a public good.

As an immediate priority, I’m asking the government to do three things. First, provide the highest level of transparency on the proposed direction of travel with citizen data. Second, clearly lay out what effective governance and oversight structures are in place for any changes they are looking to introduce. Third, ensure deep and proper public participation in these discussions to build trust.

That is why Labour is eager to explore our digital future. How we gather, use and protect citizens’ data is essential to that. Our data can be a platform for better services and citizen empowerment. Or it can be part of a private fiefdom in 10 Downing Street. The government should at least let us know which it is.

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