Implementing national data strategies: start small, think big

Tue Oct 19, 2021
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Is the UK’s Spending Review an opportunity to transform national data and AI strategies into reality? Jeni Tennison, ODI Vice President and Chief Strategy Adviser, shares her thoughts

Jeni Tennison, Vice President and Chief Strategy Adviser, shares her thoughts on the UK’s Spending Review and the opportunities it presents to transform national data and AI strategies into reality

New kids on the block

The upcoming Spending Review is an opportunity for the UK to properly invest in the activities needed to turn national data and AI strategies into reality. But this will require departments and other public bodies across government to embed data work into their existing plans; it can’t all be implemented from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) or the Cabinet Office.

The recent UK government reshuffle has left new ministers in charge of important data policy areas. Nadine Dorries has replaced Oliver Dowden as Secretary of State for DCMS. Julia Lopez has moved from the Cabinet Office to take on John Whittingdale’s media and data brief in DCMS, which includes the implementation of the National Data Strategy published last year. These ministerial changes come almost at the moment of launch of DCMS’s ‘Data: a new direction’ consultation, which covers important reforms to the UK’s data protection and e-privacy regime, and of the new AI strategy.

Meanwhile, Stephen Barclay, who gained a reputation for his interest in data while at the Treasury, is now Minister for the Cabinet Office. His remit will include delivering Mission 3 of the National Data Strategy – ‘Transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services’ – through the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and Government Digital Service (GDS). He has taken over from Michael Gove, who has moved to the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Data: the cross-government opportunity

The reshuffle also comes just as decisions are being made, through the Spending Review process, for investments across government over the next three years.

But as our 100+ page document describing the various public sector organisations, groups, and boards working on data shows, it’s not just DCMS and the Cabinet Office that influence data policy and practice, within government and outside it. Many other departments and public sector bodies have responsibilities in specific areas (such as the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s oversight for data use to monitor and support international development, or the Department for Education’s ownership of the Essential Digital Skills framework). And many are using data both operationally and strategically to achieve their departmental objectives (such as the Department for Transport’s work around bus open data, or the Ministry of Justice’s work to make more data about the courts system accessible).

The National Data Strategy may be led and monitored by DCMS, but it can’t implement it alone. To turn goals into reality, public bodies need to think about data within their own remit in three ways:

  1. How they use data to inform evidence-based policymaking (see my long read, and the excellent comments on it, from last summer) so that investment is directed towards interventions that are impactful, and so that evidence is gathered to support the next round of investment in three years’ time.
  2. How they use data to support the operational delivery of public services, particularly but not only digital public services, to ensure that delivery is inclusive, efficient and effective.
  3. How they use data and improved access to data to support people, communities and organisations in the wider economy and society (again, see my long read, and the insightful comments on it, from last summer).

Data: the cross-sector opportunity

This last item is one that sometimes falls between the cracks. Data isn’t just something that governments use internally for their own purposes; changing information flows changes how social and economic systems work and can help address the common market failures described in the Treasury’s Green Book:

  • Some data is a public good: non-excludable in supply and non-rivalrous in demand. This kind of data can’t be supplied on a commercial basis; it needs to be maintained by the government.
  • Ensuring the provision of data about how a market – whether transport or energy or any other market – can help that market work better (addressing imperfect information); improving data flows between buyers and sellers can help combat unfair information asymmetries.
  • Capturing data about externalities is necessary for it to be factored into decision making; data about carbon impact is an important example of this.
  • Exclusive access to data is one way that monopolies maintain their market power: improving data flows, including enabling customers to share data about themselves with multiple suppliers through data portability, can help reduce barriers to entry.

Shaping data collection, use and sharing within the wider economy is not only good for the digital and data economy, but can also help public bodies meet their objectives. In the long read reference above, I discussed the need in every sector to:

  • Invest in creating and maintaining new datasets where they don’t exist
  • Rationalise data stewardship where there are multiple organisations that are collecting and maintaining the same data
  • Standardise and improve the quality of data so that it better meets wider needs
  • Improve access to data so that more (or fewer) people and organisations can use it, and to tackle the market-distorting effects of data monopolisation
  • Increase the capability to use data by making it easier to find, understand and use data, and train and support those who need to do so
  • Encourage the use of data – and identify gaps – through open innovation

Data: the smart investment

Data-related interventions like these can be relatively cheap and have a high return on investment, particularly when you factor in the broad knock-on societal and productivity benefits from better-informed people and businesses, and the economic growth and innovation from value-add digital and data services. The best detailed study on this is on the impact of Transport for London’s open data where £1m annual investment leads to £90m–£130m annual benefits.

While responsibility for the National Data Strategy sits with DCMS, its implementation has to be a whole-of-government activity which needs to be embedded in programme design and invested in through the Spending Review. Without it, the government will fail to meet its ambitions for digital and data in the UK, and for the UK in the world.