Public Services > Central Government

Manzoni leads UK chief data officer hunt in wider reform drive

Neil Merrett Published 27 March 2017

GDS head Kevin Cunnington says ongoing recruitment reflects ubiquity of data across whole of government; Manzoni forms new board to accelerate Whitehall transformation aims


Civil Service chief executive John Manzoni is leading ongoing efforts to recruit a single chief data officer as opposed to the Government Digital Service (GDS) as a reflection of the broader scope of Whitehall’s ambitions to overhaul information management.

Along with overseeing the new recruitment, Manzoni has also established a Data Board to look at accelerating data initiatives across all government departments as part of a revised approach to transfer information and devising policy.

Former GDS executive director Mike Bracken was appointed as the UK’s first chief data officer in 2015 with the aim of trying to streamline information sharing between departments.  After leaving Whitehall, Paul Maltby was most recently charged with leading cross-government information management initiatives under the title of director of data.  However, Maltby’s contract was not extended beyond the New Year, leaving the position vacant. 

Current GDS head Kevin Cunnington said in an interview Government Computing that the recently released Government Transformation Strategy committed to putting in place a new data head for government.  The position is being recruited not by the organisation, but through John Manzoni.

“[This is] for the reason that data is ubiquitous among a number of departments, GDS, the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), so John wanted someone in the centre,” he said.

Cunnington added that a new Data Board has established in Whitehall to look at cross-departmental work, which has held its first meeting to look at possible challenges in information management.

“We picked 11 examples currently of data programmes that we would want to focus on and accelerate.  It’s the board’s role to press them and accelerate them,” he said.

With successive changes in data leadership since 2015, Cunnington argued that the latest initiatives were an acceleration of previous work to streamline how information is shared and stored by departments, particularly with regard to limiting duplication of data sets.

“When I talk about data, I talk about four things that we need to invest more in,” he said.  “One is we now have the Digital Economy Bill going through the last part of the Lords.  That gives us a legal framework for accelerating the ability to use data from different departments. So this is very good.”

For a second point, Cunnington argued that from an operational perspective, government had not used a lot of cross departmental data in the development of new services.  GDS’ executive director said that services have previously been based on information held in departmental silos.

“The analysis shows that using cross departmental data greatly improves the services to citizens and allows us to be more efficient,” he said.

Cunnington added that some 30,000 government data sets were online, with the Open Data Institute (ODI) being commissioned to look at types of information published in other countries that could be replicated in the UK to aid innovative practices.

“The example I typically use is we actually publish the height of roadside curbs in the UK.  Now you might think that a slightly odd thing to publish, but actually some entrepreneurial soul has turned it into an app that allows wheelchair users to navigate around towns and cities better than they previously could,” he said. 

“It’s that kind of insight into what is a good thing to publish and where have we seen it work that we’re hoping the ODI can help us with.”

A final focus Cunnington believed would be vital for reform efforts was in creating better data scientists to design services going forward.

Privacy concerns

Despite the government’s wider ambitions for data sharing within the Digital Economy Bill, privacy remains a significant issue for innovation going forward, particularly in ensuring public trust and support for cross departmental work.

Manzoni has previously set out the need to gain “public confidence” in the government’s use of data as reviews continue both in and out of parliament with regard to Whitehall’s governance of information and ethical judgements on how to share information in the right way.

In recent months, academics, parliamentarians and, it is understood, parts of government have increasingly raised concerns about clauses within the bill. Strong concerns in particular have been levelled at how information can be shared between the government, the wider public sector and private organisations.

Privacy campaigners are urging the government to drop an entire section from the proposed legislation that it argues will undo "slow, but painful" progress made in controlling patient information by removing scrutiny and oversight of citizen's rights to approve how their details may be shared.

Critics of the bill have also argued that the proposed legislation risks failing to take key lessons from the defunct programme that was scrapped last year at the behest of the UK national data guardian over concerns about privacy.

This in turn led to a consultation being established to look at future directions for patient data sharing programmes and how individuals should be informed about them, particularly around models of consent from patients.

However, with the government yet to formally respond to the recommendations in the Caldicott review, GDS said it would be inappropriate to comment on the potential impact it might have on its obligations for handling data present.

Related articles:

Manzoni outlines public trust challenge behind Whitehall data aims

Delayed GDS strategy unveiled in wider Whitehall reform plan

Privacy groups urge dropping entire Digital Economy Bill data clause

Kevin Cunnington looks to year 6 and beyond for GDS

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