Public Services > Central Government

Whitehall’s data policy shift to DCMS raises implementation questions

David Bicknell Published 30 March 2018

Move confirmed in written statement yesterday will raise continued queries over future of identity policy and impact on GDS of the data policy responsibility shift


The government’s statement in Parliament yesterday confirming that data policy and governance functions of the Government Digital Service (GDS) will transfer from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) from Sunday has raised several implementation and impact questions.

They include what the reason - or catalyst – was for the change in data policy; what the mechanics of the change will be i.e. how many civil servants will switch from the Cabinet Office to DCMS; and whether the change in data policy and governance responsibility could be followed by further changes, such as ultimate responsibility for identity policy. 

Whitehall insiders have previously scotched any suggestion that the data policy and governance move heralded a potential wider shake-up of GDS’s structure and remit, and said portfolios do change across government from time to time, citing the change from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) taking on housing to become the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Yesterday's ministerial statement insisted that GDS will “continue its work supporting the ongoing digital transformation of government, building digital capability in the Civil Service and championing service design across government to meet user needs.”

Asked to comment on the ministerial statement, a DCMS spokesperson said today,"Data policy across government will now be consolidated in DCMS. This includes data sharing, better use of data in government and open data. The move complements our existing policy work on data protection, data ethics, free flows of data and the value of the data economy." Further details are expected to follow from DCMS after the Easter weekend.

The loss of GDS responsibility for data policy will inevitably throw the spotlight on GDS and particularly on an event to be hosted by the organisation, Sprint 18 , on May 10. GDS has said its event will “celebrate all the great work that has been done so far to transform government – and to look at what we’ll be doing next.” GDS director general Kevin Cunnington's blog post refers to GOV.UK Notify, GOV.UK Pay and GOV.UK Verify in looking ahead to Sprint, as well as referring to the tools, structures and capabilities needed to transform government. 

In its statement yesterday, the government said the transfer “includes responsibility for data sharing (including coordination of Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act 2017), data ethics, open data and data governance.”

At the same time, it said, “policy responsibility for digital signatures will move from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to DCMS, which will also jointly lead with BEIS on the relationship with the Open Data Institute, Digital Catapult and The Alan Turing Institute.”

The statement said the expanded DCMS now brings together in one place data policy for both government and the wider economy. It said this will support work, led by DCMS, to ensure the UK is fully realising the benefits of the data economy for all.

The statement concluded that further to the Budget announcement last Autumn, strategic geospatial data policy initiatives from BEIS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are to be consolidated into the Cabinet Office from April 1 to support the work of the Geospatial Commission.

Possible questions that follow from the data policy and governance transfer:

  • What was the reason - or perhaps, catalyst - for this change in data policy?
  • What materially will change from April 1?
  • How many civil servants will transfer from the Cabinet Office to DCMS? How will this acquisition of data policy and governance affect DCMS in terms of staffing? One member of GDS has already confirmed on Twitter that as of Tuesday, he will be moving over to DCMS.
  • There are some who argue that if data policy and governance is going to DCMS, then identity policy will follow too, because data and identity are inextricably linked. So is there any prospect of a change here too - or has any change in responsibility for identity policy categorically been ruled out for the forseeable future? Cunnington's specific reference to Verify in looking ahead to Sprint 18 in May might imply that no change in responsibility for identity is on the cards.
  • Can we expect any change in approach for digital signatures with responsibility moving from BEIS to DCMS?
  • What will be the impact on other organisations named in the statement, such as the Open Data Institute, Digital Catapult and The Alan Turing Institute?
  • What will be the impact on GDS from the loss of data policy and governance responsibility? How will its culture, role, morale and standing in government be affected?


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