Accurate, accessible and secure data has the potential to transform policymaking in the UK. During the pandemic, data helped us identify the most vulnerable in society. It provided the backbone for the medical research used to create the vaccines so quickly.
The ability to understand and use data across the public sector is critical to shaping and enacting policies. By establishing the right data governance framework across government – not just in one department or agency – the UK could realise its ambition to be a world leading innovative economy.
Already, the UK is ahead of the curb in using data in policymaking, according to a report by Splunk. In particular, we are outstripping our European rivals in the use of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. From genome sequencing to identify how a certain kind of cancer will progress and could be treated, to using augmented and virtual reality technology to train military personnel, the UK is ahead of the game when it comes to using data across different government departments.
This success should not come as a surprise. The UK has a long history in AI. In the 1940s, the founder of modern computer science, Alan Turing, introduced many of the central concepts of AI in his report “Intelligent Machinery”. Sixty years later the UK was ranked third in the world for private investment into AI companies, behind only the US and China. British governments have recognised the potential of AI to increase resilience and boost productivity across the private and public sector.
We could be a global superpower in the use of data to solve challenges at home and on the international stage, from reducing crime to tackling climate change. But there are still obstacles on this journey.
The creation of the Central Digital Data Office (CDDO) within the Cabinet Office has encouraged better data sharing within Whitehall, and chief data officers in individual departments are providing direction and oversight on data projects. Encouragingly, in September the CDDO appointed a chief digital officer to lead the charge at a national level.
And yet several key departments still don’t have a data strategy. There are too few civil servants with the knowledge needed to improve data usage and data sharing between departments. We need specialist teams of data experts within government agencies to improve the data skills of our public sector workforce.
Likewise, the UK should ensure all public sector data can be reused and shared across government departments. It’s currently difficult for the majority of civil servants to access and transfer data securely within departments – let alone between different agencies. During the early stages of the pandemic, delays in data-sharing across the health and social care sector meant the number of cases was potentially much higher than originally expected at the time. To improve data sharing we need to look at our legacy systems, investing in new technology to enable public sector agencies to be able to share data quickly and securely.
The UK’s response to the pandemic has powerfully illustrated the potential benefits of data. We have a great opportunity to embed data at the heart of all major public policy challenges. If we use the information we have at hand more effectively, citizens will benefit from a significant data dividend.