Manzoni targets further change in Whitehall data commitments
Civil Service chief says work needed ensure sufficient infrastructure, skills and legislation are in place to allow government services to benefit from new tools and analysis techniques
Civil Service chief executive John Manzoni has highlighted the need for further changes around how government data is being used to overhaul the delivery of public services with a focus on skills, infrastructure and the need for sufficient legislation and ethical frameworks among key concerns.
Building on previous commitments set out by the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service (GDS) to move away from a more siloed approach to sharing information across Whitehall, Manzoni argued there were significant opportunities for improved public services and policy going forward via data reforms.
In a post on the Civil Service Quarterly blog, he said a reformed policy on managing the vast amounts of government data could improve the convenience of how citizens engage with Whitehall, as well as boosting the overall economy with better sharing arrangements to power businesses.
Manzoni argued that the current so-called 'digital age' of data was in the process of changing society with regard to commerce, social engagement and how audiences view media, adding that the government had to do more in how it chooses to prepare for such changes.
“At the heart of this are a range of new tools, techniques and types of data, often rather misleadingly bundled together as ‘Big Data’,” he said.
“The scale of some data in government can be extremely large (weather data, for example). However, in practice, much of the innovation in public services and data will come through applying new machine learning tools and techniques to the existing data that can be queried and transported around our systems in more modern ways.”
With the ongoing digital transformation of the government’s operations and services, Manzoni said that the increased amounts of data being generated as a result would create opportunities to improve decision making through the use of analytics and tools.
“So getting data right is the next phase of public service reform. And the UK Government has a strong foundation on which to build this future,” he added.
To try and realise further potential benefits from its data use, Manzoni pledged an ongoing commitment to create a further number of open registers that can serve as single points of information for government departments, as well as providing tools that can better locate specific details.
He also highlighted the need for both the recruitment and wider training of staff to ensure sufficient data skills are available in the Civil Service. Ongoing efforts to set out data regulation in the Digital Economy Bill were also being considered despite opposition concerns about the effectiveness of the legislation proposed so far.
Disruption on its way
Manzoni claimed that there had already been a steady rise in use of business intelligence data across the operational parts of government, with new data science tools and capabilities expected to increase the role of analysis in service design.
A shift towards using data to support more decision making by frontline staff is expected to be central to future efficiency efforts in Whitehall, he noted.
“Data is the foundation of government, a part of our essential national infrastructure, and it cannot be left to chance. The data revolution has shaken entire industries such as retail, transport and financial services, and this disruption is coming for government too,” Manzoni added.
In November, it was revealed that the Digital Economy Bill faced extensive potential changes as a result of concerns being raised both in parliament and publicly from industry experts around areas such as data sharing and a perceived failure to balance innovation and privacy.
Over 130 amendments have been tabled to the bill by the government itself and even specialists in its minutiae said at the time that they are unclear where the legislation is heading. Louise Haigh MP, Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy, has observed that “It is now clear that the bill was not ready to come to the committee.”
Responding to the release of the Autumn Statement the same month, the Open Data Institute (ODI) had called on the government to “build on its successes” in trying to put in place stronger data infrastructure to meet ambitions for the emerging digital economy. The institute warned that a failure to do so risked the UK failing behind other countries in trying to lead data-led innovation and services.
“Data is vital infrastructure for our society and a competitive advantage for a 21st century economy. It is an under-recognised piece of critical national infrastructure that needs government focus and support,” said the ODI in its post statement briefing.