Insights Blog

In the public interest: unlocking the potential of public sector data

Public sector data

This is a guest blog by Lucinda Smith, Data Analytics Solutions Director at Exasol. Lucinda helps organizations across multiple sectors – including retail, transport, healthcare and the public sector – to use data as a driver for high-performance business outcomes.

In this article, she assesses the UK government’s National Data Strategy and looks ahead to how it could evolve.

Guidance on how to analyze, deal with and capitalize on the benefits of data is now formally being made part of public policy. In 2020, the UK government published its draft National Data Strategy, that sets out how it intends to unlock the full potential and value of data for the benefit of the nation. The strategy is based on four pillars: data foundations, skills, data availability and responsibility.

Here, I want to break down the plan and explain why the appointment of a Chief Data Officer (CDO) for the nation is a good idea.

A step in the right direction

In his foreword to the National Data Strategy, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Oliver Dowden, stated that: “Data is now the driving force of the world’s modern economies. It fuels innovation in businesses large and small, and has been a lifeline during the global coronavirus pandemic.” 

At Exasol, we don’t need any convincing about the value of data or the pivotal impact it can have on industry, society and our daily lives. So we view this official recognition of the need to have a national data strategy as a welcome move, albeit one which needs to be handled with care and consideration.  

However, it’s not enough to make bold statements and propose a strategy. What’s now needed is a carefully managed roll-out of the strategy, supported by consistent and robust leadership. The government is proposing to hire a Chief Data Officer (CDO) to oversee the execution of the Strategy, a role which currently exists in just a few countries, including Estonia, France and Australia. 

More on the CDO role and what we can learn from other nations later, but for now, let’s dive in to the four strategic pillars laid out in the Government’s plans, and the opportunities they pose in terms of unlocking and harnessing the full potential of public sector data.

The four pillars of the National Data Strategy

1. Data foundations
In order to reap the maximum rewards, data must be formatted in a more formalized and consistent way, ensuring that all information is fit for purpose, of good quality and easy to use. Data infrastructure also needs to be modern, easily to navigate and flexible enough to adapt to future changes and upgrades.

The benefits of improving this aspect of public sector data are clear. Audits have revealed large gaps in how data is organized, managed and stored, meaning there is little to no consistency. Such governance issues can lead to data loss, inefficiencies, overspending and a lack of accountability – which in turn can have a huge impact on people’s lives.

2. Skills
The proposal states that, according to Royal Society research, “the demand for specialist data skills has more than tripled since 2013, while DCMS-commissioned analysis of 9.4 million online job adverts predicts that data analysis skills will be the fastest growing digital skills cluster over the next five years.” However, with over 100,000 unfilled data jobs in the UK last year, there is a gap that needs to be filled.

Our own D/NATIVES research issued in March 2021, shows that only 43% of the 3,000 16-21-year-old ‘digital natives’ surveyed considered themselves to be data literate. Futhermore, 55% felt that data should play a much bigger role in their education. The national strategy proposes to work with educators, businesses, individuals and industry bodies such as the Alan Turing Institute and the IDA to encourage better collaborations and a more joined up approach to ensuring better data literacy for those who need it.

3. Data availability
For the strategy to work, data needs to be easily accessible, transferable and capable of re-use, allowing for a natural and simple flow of data between individuals, organizations and even international borders.

Data sharing can fuel growth and innovation, allowing public sector groups to gain vital insights from other organizations and public sector officials to make decisions around resourcing and spending based on accurate, real-time information. A good example is Transport for London (TfL), which by opening up its data sets to travellers and third-party providers contributed up to £130 million per year to the London economy through time saved by travellers.

By easing access to and harnessing the potential of public services data, we can achieve more wins like this and go a long way towards providing more jobs, cutting costs and delivering better services. Across the world, many administrations are already proactive in this area. In France, the first country to appoint a CDO, the CDO office files an annual report to summarize inventory, governance, production, circulation and use of data by administrations. This enables year-on-year measurement and performance evaluation

4. Responsible data
Data privacy, accuracy and transparency remain real concerns for many, and the Government has pledged in this strategy to make sure data remains lawful, secure, fair, ethical, sustainable and accountable. 

There are of course completely ethical and beneficial reasons for public data to be collected and made available. For example, in order to understand threats to national security, to understand and cater for population trends and the use of medical data to track and manage disease outbreaks and infection rates.

Again, we can look abroad for inspiration here. Australia, another country which has appointed a CDO, has a seven-step data quality framework, covering institutional environment, relevance, timeliness, accuracy, coherence, interpretability, and accessibility. 

The CDO: a data champion for the nation

To champion data-driven innovation across public sector organizations and in society, we need ambitious and experienced leaders who believe in the mission and have the contacts and gravitas to inspire others to follow.

The appointment of CDOs in some countries has, if nothing else, formalized the need to take data seriously and make every effort to collect and use it carefully in order to maximize results. And even if CDOs are not in place, there is now a growing recognition for countries to take responsibility and ownership of data and place a higher value on its integrity. 

An example of this is the recent move by four EU nations (Germany, Estonia, Finland and Denmark) who are calling for the EU to adopt a joined-up data strategy. More than 92% of Europe’s data is hosted in the US. These countries have decided it’s time to take back what they call ‘digital sovereignty’, and allow data and innovation to flow and be shared seamlessly throughout the EU. 

The stakes are high – in economic value alone, studies have shown that data contributes over £50bn a year to the UK economy through direct, indirect and induced inpacts, according to a report by the National Infrastructure Commission. Having left the EU, the UK faces the dual challenge and opportunity of going solo and striking out as a world player in how it shares, harnesses and maximizes its data.