03 April 2018

Data policy has moved to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Gavin Freeguard welcomes the move but says the Government needs to be clear about what it wants to do with all this data.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is now in charge of government data policy, taking over responsibility from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

For all the UK’s progress in data – open and otherwise – there are still too many instances of departments not using data to understand and improve what they do, and too many instances of the public not having the data it needs to hold government to account. The recent stories about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica highlight some challenges government might face in collecting, sharing and using personal data.

Bringing government data policy together provides an opportunity to revitalise it.

Hancock is the right man at the right time

DCMS taking over data policy is a positive move, one that should bring political impetus to a vital subject that has slipped down the political agenda in recent years.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is one of the relatively few frontline politicians with obvious knowledge and experience of and enthusiasm for these issues: while Minister for the Cabinet Office in 2015–16, he spoke often about open data and the need for government to use its own data effectively (which he dubbed “dogfooding”).

Hancock also has the chance to build a proper centre for data policy in government at DCMS. As well as the “responsibility for data sharing, data ethics, open data and data governance” it gets today, DCMS already had responsibility for the nascent Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and relevant policy areas like the digital economy, digital skills and the Digital Charter. This is also vital for ensuring progress outlasts any future political changes, and isn’t wholly dependent on individual ministers.

There are challenges that Hancock will need to overcome

First, he needs to define what DCMS is for. The running joke in BBC sitcom W1A is that “the Department for Culture, Media and for some reason also Sport” is already a random assemblage. In the aftermath of ‘Digital’ being added to the department’s name, and civil society to its responsibilities, even the civil servants who work there aren’t sure: there was a six-point drop when civil servants were asked how their work fits into their department’s objectives and purpose in 2017 compared to 2016, the largest drop of any department.

Second, Hancock needs to figure out if DCMS has the right skills and capabilities. Staff numbers from March 2017 show only around 6% of its civil servants definitely belonged to the data-heavy economics, social research, operational research, statistics or data, digital and technology professions. Staff numbers have since risen in DCMS from 650 to 800 in the six months to December 2017, which may help redress that.

Third, Hancock needs to bridge data divides across Whitehall. Data is already fragmented across government, as we discovered when we tried mapping the different organisations with responsibility for data. For example, even as data policy heads away from the Cabinet Office to DCMS, geospatial data is heading over to the Cabinet Office. Meanwhile the head of profession for data, digital and technology in government remains at GDS. Data science is not mentioned in last week’s statement, so one presumes that remains there, too. Data is intertwined with digital and technology, so GDS still has a vital role in implementation. DCMS and GDS will need to work closely together if the Government is to have a coherent approach.

What happens now?

Matt Hancock asking for data now isn’t something only users of the Culture Secretary’s app have experienced, but a reality in government. The next step, surely, is a government data strategy.

What does government want to achieve with data? How does government plan to use data to sharpen its insight? How will it use data to improve public services? What data does government plan to publish to help us to hold it accountable? And what place does data have in the wider economy?

These questions (and others) need answers. But at least with this reorganisation, now – when it comes to data in government – there’s a Matt for that.

Comments

It will be interesting to see if the GeoSpatial Commission, currently with the Cabinet Office, follows the GDS into DCMS. It clearly should be a central building block of government data policy. Current signs are that the encouraging initiative announced by the Chancellor in November, following up on the promise of the Conservative Manifesto, is now losing momentum. I hope I am wrong.