The UK government’s current approach to data management could lead to future scandals similar to Windrush if action is not taken soon, warns the National Audit Office.

In its new report, Challenges in using data across government, the NAO examines how the government uses data in its policies, and has identified “fundamental challenges” facing its current data practices.

In its 2017 digital strategy, the UK government it stated that it would “take the actions needed to make the UK a world-leading data-driven economy, where data fuels economic and social opportunities for everyone, and where people can trust that their data is being used appropriately”. However, it is evident from the report that this has not been the case.

What does the NAO data report say?

The report has identified a number of key barriers preventing the government bodies from reaping the benefits of the large quantities of data at their disposal. It highlighting that data is not seen as a priority, with other issues such as Brexit, as well as funding pressures, leading to the quality and sharing of data becoming a “neglected and poorly planned activity”. As a result, clear leadership on the issue is essential.

There are also no cross-government standards on how to record data, which has led to inconsistent ways of recording information and “silo working”. This has meant that the benefits of data are not being fully realised, and is preventing valuable analysis across different sectors.

Furthermore, the importance of investing in quality data is not fully understood, and that this has led to a culture of working with poor data. As a result, the government must develop “the capability, leadership and culture to support sustained improvement in the quality of information available”.

The Windrush scandal is an example of poor data use

If used correctly, data can be a hugely valuable asset in delivering services and making evidence-based decisions. However, when data is of poor quality or incomplete, problems arise. An example of the negative and lasting consequences of poor data use is the Windrush scandal.

In 2018, at least 83 people, many of whom were members of the “Windrush generation”, were wrongly detained and deported after the Home Office did not keep a record of their right to remain in the UK.

The NAO identifies this as an example of the real-life impacts poor data sharing can have after the Home Office shared documents on individuals believed to be in the country illegally with other departments and organisations. A proportion of this data was later discovered to be incorrect, highlighting the importance of fully assessing the quality of underlying data, especially when “making life-changing decisions on people’s rights”.

In a statement, Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said that the government must learn from this situation to prevent similar scandals from happening in the future:

“The Government needs to learn from these shortcomings, and take urgent action to address them. The Windrush scandal should serve as an important reminder of the human cost of its’ failure to have good quality data.”

What happens next?

Moving forward, the NAO strongly recommends “a clearly articulated plan of work to overcome these barriers”, with cross-government accountability, governance and funding.

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In addition, the datasets that are critical to government activity should be identified, with the need for a system to establish how they can be improved and shared more easily.

The UK government has said that it will establish a national data strategy in 2020, which will be led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), working with Cabinet Office, but the NAO has emphasised the urgency in which this is needed.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, comments that it is important to avoid a “missed opportunity”:

“The right processes, systems and conditions must now be put in place, otherwise the new data strategy will become yet another missed opportunity.”

“Good data is the basis of good public service in the digital age”

Hugo D’Ulisse, Director, Public Sector at SAS UK believes that good data practices will have a real impact on people’s lives:

“It’s not just about what citizens want, it’s about what we all need. If the Government seizes the opportunity to manage and standardise its data it will improve essential services in ways that would have a real impact on people’s lives. The NHS is a perfect example of this – the inefficiency of data access between different trusts, hospitals and GPs is well-documented, costing thousands of man-hours and delaying essential treatment. Past attempts to implement high-capacity data management have failed spectacularly – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority.”

He explains that good quality data is key to this:

“Good data is the basis of good public service in the digital age. The same rule applies in the private sector – if you have good quality data going in it means good quality insights coming out of your analytics engine. The growing amount of data being generated by digitised public services could be used to generate highly valuable insights if it could be reliably analysed.

“The Government needs to get its data house in order – only then will it be able to truly unlock the unquestionable value in the data it holds.”


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