London - Palace of Westminster, UK

The UK government is missing the opportunity to transform its use of data, and risks falling behind other countries if it does not invest now, according to civil society groups – including the ODI.

In an open letter to the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the group warned that failure to better invest in data means it is currently unable to properly understand its own operations and the quality of public services.

The intervention follows growing concern about problems with the government's collection, use and sharing of data, including concerns from the National Audit Office about the impact of poor quality data on society.

This is the first time the group of thinktanks, civil groups and learned societies have come together to make a united call for sweeping reforms to the UK’s data landscape.

The upcoming National Data Strategy offers the chance to seize the new data environment, and use it to deliver better public services, and improve the economy and society for future generations.

The Royal Statistical Society’s Executive Director, Hetan Shah, said: “Fashionable interest in sexy things like artificial intelligence in government won't go anywhere unless we solve some old boring data problems around skills, infrastructure, governance and linkage”.

But to succeed, there needs to be transformative – not incremental – change and there must be leadership from the very top, with buy-in from the Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary and civil service Chief Executive. All too often, piecemeal incentives across Whitehall prevent better use of data for the public benefit, says the group.

The letter also calls for:

  • Investment in skills to convert data into real information that can be acted upon
  • The government to earn the public’s trust, recognising that the debate about how to use citizens’ data must be had in public, with the public
  • A mechanism for long-term engagement between decision-makers, data users and the public on the strategy and its goals
  • Increased efforts to fix the government’s data infrastructure so organisations outside the government can benefit from it
  • The strategy to have a broader focus than just public service delivery, including in research funding, procurement and legislation

The letter was signed by the Open Data Institute along with the Institute for Government, Full Fact, Nesta, mySociety, the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Royal Statistical Society, the Open Contracting Partnership, 360Giving, OpenOwnership, and the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

The letter was sent to the Secretary of State today (Monday 15 July), as DCMS begins drafting the National Data Strategy, and ahead of the influential Public Accounts Committee’s evidence session on the subject, in which civil service Chief Executive, John Manzoni will give evidence.