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Cabinet Office "big data unit" in think-tank's technology manifesto



Creation of a "big data" unit in the Cabinet Office; ensuring civil servants have digital skills; and a central digital service shared by local councils are among recommendations of a new "technology manifesto" from think-tank Policy Exchange.

The report, sponsored by technology companies EMC and Google, urges politicians to "put technology front and centre of their thinking" in the run up to next year's general election. If fully implemented, UK government could save up to £24 billion a year by 2020 through more efficient use of technology, it says.

The manifesto makes 33 distinct policy recommendations, grouped around three ambitious goals: to build the world's most digitally skilled society; to make Britain the most attractive place for tech entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley; and to make UK government "the smartest in the world".

"Smarter government" recommendations include the establishment of an "advanced analytics team" in the Cabinet Office to help departments share and crunch data. "Across the public sector, extraordinary quantities of information are amassed or created in the course of running public services", the report says. "In the arena of tax alone, HM Revenue & Customs reportedly holds over 80 times as much data as the British Library. This information is an asset. There is a huge opportunity to unlock its value by using big data analytics to enable evidence-based policymaking and improve the efficiency of government operations."

Eddie Copeland, head of technology policy unit at Policy Exchange and the report's author, told the concept does not simply relate to centralised data analysis, but dissemination of skills across government.

"There are still endless silos of information within government, but the real power of data comes from integration", Copeland said. "At the moment that kind of big data capability does not exist within any single department, but a central core team in the Cabinet Office could work with senior leaders in each department, so these skills are rolled out."

Potential uses of data analysis range from helping to better fight public sector fraud, for example linking benefits data to tax data, and to help customise or personalise services, he said. "At the moment the government does very little to personalise services to each individual, it is one size fits all. But the more you can link up data, the more you can understand individuals' needs."

Another way of spreading technology skills would be to update the Civil Service competency framework to ensure every individual working in government has a basic ability in digital skills such as data analytics, from the time they are recruited to each time they are promoted, the report says.

"Every civil servant should have a basic understanding of how to use and interpret data", said Copeland. "Big data insights are pointless unless you have senior figures who can use the information to achieve effective policy outcomes."

Another of the manifesto's recommendations is that local government should follow Whitehall in setting up a single central digital "hub" parallel to the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office. This body could be set up within the local government IT management body Socitm and should be funded and supported by councils themselves and other local government associations, the report says.

"The body would provide practical support to help local authorities apply Government as a Platform resources; advocate the adoption of open standards across the sector; and establish a single website for local government", it says.

The recommendation could prove controversial as it might be seen by some as contravening the principle of local self-determination. However Copeland said a hub to promote shared tools, processes and systems would be a way of helping poorer performing councils improve their technology performance.

"Different government departments have different levels of maturity when it comes to IT, but the levels of difference in local government are far more extreme. Some are excellent, but others are pretty dire", he said. "A local GDS could help them converge, and councils would be free to use or not to use its services, though we believe there would be a compelling financial case to do so. Local government should absolutely have local priorities, but that does not mean they need bespoke IT."

Other recommendations in the new manifesto include that government should commit to wholesale adoption of a "government as a platform" model, based on open technology standards; and the conversion of , the 150 highest-volume government transactions to the digital-by-default standard by the end of the 2015 parliament. Any new government should also set up an independent committee of data ethics to advise it on novel uses of data, helping to improve public trust in its technology activities, the report finds.

When it comes to developing policies on open data, "A key objective in 2015 must be to ensure that open data is not a passing fad, but a permanent shift in the way government works", the manifesto says. In particular, Ordnance Survey maps and data should be made free to use, it says. In both cases, cost is an issue but it can be made to work, Copeland said.

"It is wrong to say open data is cost-free to government, whether central or local, so if want this not just to be a fad but long-term, we need to find a way it is both beneficial to government and to the citizen", he said. "Open data needs to be strategic, not just the blanket release of all data."

As for making Ordnance Survey data free for all to use - a move which has been considered and rejected several times in the past - Copeland said this should now go ahead, as more value would be created than the money it would cost to publicly fund the service.

"After the recent flooding we saw the government released datasets which were plotted on OS maps, and they realised that apps that might help people were not being created because of licence fees", he said. "Then when there was a three month window where the data was available for free, people came up with useful products."

At a debate held to launch the manifesto, MPs from all three main Westminster parties welcomed its main positions. However shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah said there was at least one major omission in its recommendations: the need to close a long-standing gender divide in the technology industry which has led to a situation where only about 16% of its workers are women. "That is where future skills need to come from", Onwurah said.

Pictured: The Cabinet Office in Whitehall, by Paul Clarke
Policy Exchange technology manifesto:

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