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Mapping data in the UK government: capability

Thu Aug 12, 2021
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As part of our 2021 policy project to support the successful implementation of the National Data Strategy, we take a look at who is responsible for data in government through the lens of capability

In September 2020, the UK government published the draft framework National Data Strategy (NDS) for public consultation, updating it in May 2021 in response to the views and evidence received.

Our new policy project explores Mission 3 of the NDS: ‘transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services’. We believe that government succeeding in this mission enables Mission 1 – unlocking the value of data cross the economy – to be accomplished. This allows the overall ambition of the NDS, to ‘help organisations of every kind succeed – across the public, private and third sectors’, to be achieved. Through transforming its own use of data, government can set an example for others and show how its own data practices can enable data flows and data use across sectors.

As part of our project, we’re mapping the different teams responsible for data across the UK government and public sector landscape, and the data-related initiatives they’re undertaking. We’ll be examining them against the six components of a trusted and trustworthy data ecosystem that we outline in our manifesto: infrastructure, capability, innovation, equity, ethics, and engagement.

Our first blogpost, which looked at infrastructure, can be found here

You can read more about the project here and see our mapping so far here.

Data capability for everyone

In this blogpost, we’re focusing on ‘data capability’. As we say in the ODI manifesto

Everyone must have the opportunity to understand how data can be and is being used. We need data literacy for all, data science skills, and experience using data to help solve problems.

We need people with the skills to get the most out of data – to build the tools, to write the code, to manipulate and analyse it. But we also need people to think critically about the use of data in different contexts – to compare and contrast how data is presented, evaluate bias in the way data is collected, consider the limits and constraints of data and understand its impact on society. In other words, data literacy.

The NDS includes skills as one of its pillars. In our response to the NDS, we noted the focus on relatively advanced data skills in central and local government, and called for more attention to be paid to building comparable capabilities in businesses and civil society and a strong foundation of core data literacy across all of society. We also argued that making it easier to find, understand and use data, and supporting those who wanted to do so, would increase capability (perhaps through a shared data agency). We also stressed the need for data skills to be present beyond the analysis and digital functions in government – for example, helping policymakers understand how to use data as a tool to achieve their goals, and procurement professionals how to build data access into procurement and how to use open contracting practices, including data publication, to increase the fairness of procurement.

Data capability in government

The government has longstanding expertise in developing skills around statistics and analysis – for example, through the work of the Government Statistical Service. Attempts to build government’s data capability over the last decade have focused more on the use of data in digital services: the creation of the Government Digital Service in 2011, and the subsequent creation of digital teams in many departments, helped bring data professionals into the public sector; while the 2017 Government Transformation Strategy also promised to embed digital skills across government. (As we say in our NDS response, there is a further step to be taken in equipping policymakers to craft data initiatives to achieve their ends.)

Much of the recent focus on developing civil service capability (including procurement, policy, finance and HR, as well as digital and data) has been on strengthening cross-cutting professions and functions, each of which cover skills, expertise and activities common to many government organisations. A number of these deal with data. For example, the Digital, Data and Technology Profession is (like the Digital Function) led by the Central Digital and Data Office, and its work includes developing capability frameworks and career paths for different data-related roles, and offering training. The Government Analysis Function, led by the National Statistician, runs events like Government Analysis Month and has a learning curriculum and career framework for civil servants working in the government’s various analytical professions.

There are other initiatives for data specialists to develop their skills, such as accelerator programmes led by the Government Data Science Partnership. And there are more informal cross-government communities and networks – on everything from data architecture to APIs and data exchange to civil servants working on understanding public attitudes to data.

Much of this involves data specialists improving their own capabilities. But there are also schemes reaching beyond these specialists, such as the data masterclasses for senior leaders run by 10DS (the Number 10 Data Science unit), and the work of the Government Data Quality Hub, which has just launched an ‘introduction to data quality’ course. Number 10 also hosts innovation fellowships to bring people from business, academia and civil society into government.

Looking beyond government, many government documents – such as the now superseded Industrial Strategy and the more recent Plan for Growth – mention the need to invest in the skills of the future, including data and artificial intelligence. In 2013, there was a strategy for data capability. The National Data Strategy mentions a number of organisations with responsibility for raising digital and data skills, including the Data Skills Taskforce, The Alan Turing Institute, the National Innovation Centre for Data, the AI Council, the UK Cyber Security Council, The Data Lab and the ODI. 

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published a report on Quantifying the UK Data Skill Gap back in May 2021. Even more recently, DCMS has launched an Online Media Literacy Strategy, where one of the principles is ‘Users should understand the risks of sharing personal data online, how that data can be used by others, and are able to take action to protect their privacy online’. 

Examples from elsewhere

If the UK government wants inspiration from other sectors, there are some good examples close at hand. The UK charity sector, for example, includes DataKind UK which helps ‘social change organisations use data science’ by connecting charities with data scientists, and Catalyst, a network ‘helping UK civil society grow in digital skills and confidence’ and whose recent projects include The Data Collective.

Elsewhere, Ben Goldacre – currently undertaking a review into the use of health data for the government – has written (with others) about how to build data analysis capability in the NHS, and an international group of academic and experts have come together to develop skills to support the next generation of public servants, through Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age.

Get involved

We’d love you to help us map relevant UK public sector teams and initiatives, as well as relevant examples from other sectors or other countries. Our mapping document is open to comments and contributions so that we can crowdsource to help us fill out the gaps, and to get your perspectives on government data initiatives. It is open for comment until Friday 17 September 2021 (extended from 10 September). You can also email [email protected] or submit via our anonymous Google Form.

Alongside our broader engagement with the UK National Data Strategy, some of the ODI’s wider portfolio of work in this area includes:

Contribute to our crowdsourced Google document Contribute to the ODI 'Mapping: data in the UK government' document