The National Audit Office has today published their new report on the Challenges in using data across government. The report is a timely and significant contribution to the debate on how Government can get the most out of its data. It articulates with great clarity the challenges faced by the public sector in sharing and using data. techUK has previously warned that, while there are pockets of good practice, the lack of leadership on this issue has hindered dramatic progress, and we urge the Government to make good on its 2017 commitment to appoint a Chief Data Officer.
The NAO’s focus on Government’s need to master its data to improve services and efficiency is absolutely correct – data has become the Government’s most valuable asset, touching every citizen, service, and policy decision – and so managing and upholding the quality of data held by various public bodies is essential to improving public service performance at national and local levels.
Strong collaboration between the UK tech industry and Government will be key to enabling public officials to implement and manage the latest technologies and methods that have already been proven in other sectors of the UK economy. Without addressing the governance issues identified in the report, Government risks lagging behind other sectors of the economy that have moved and benefited from embracing such investment.
Central, devolved and local authorities need to leverage technology and data best practices as these will enable them to move away from legacy environments which limit information sharing and effective operations – this will require new investment to be made available. The forthcoming spending review therefore is a timely opportunity to identify how best to release new investment which can ensure public authorities make full and better use of data and significantly reduce high costs involved with maintaining outdated systems and service delivery models.
Attitudes to data sharing will also need to advance. As the report NAO points out, public authorities can too readily adopt “risk preoccupied” stances towards data sharing which limit opportunities to better serve the public and the tax payer – this extends to data sharing between departments, where there are strong use cases in almost every area of government activity, from financial to health services, as the report highlights – existing technology and data practices now allows this to be achieved easily and securely.
The challenges posed by legacy systems and the difficulties in demonstrating return on investment in data projects are not insignificant. But the recent Government Technology Innovation Strategy contained commitments to help departments with making business cases for projects such as this, and encouraged public sector bodies to tackle their legacy issues. The tech industry stands ready to work with Government to drive forward improvements in this space, and we look forward to supporting the creation of the National Data Strategy, which we see as a real opportunity to move the dial. But departments do not need to wait for the strategy to be published next year - there are technologies and tools available now that can be harnessed to make a start on tackling their data challenges.