Interview: Karina Singh, director of transformation for the national land and property data agency, explains that a long term programme for digital and data has to be addressed ‘one bite at a time’
Karina Singh accepts that her job title, ‘director of transformation’, can alarm her colleagues at HM Land Registry. “People always assume it’s about financial pressures,” she says.
But this is far from the case. Transformation ‘is about making things better,” she stresses. “It’s about opening up Land Registry data to the Government and the rest of the world.”
Singh joined Land Registry last November, after a decade in which the agency had already been through more change than at any equivalent time in its 150-year history. Among other things, this involved digitising the register, a series of office closures (including its old HQ in Lincoln’s Inn, now part of the London School of Economics) and an abortive and expensive foray into electronic conveyancing. All against a backdrop of possible privatisation - a prospect finally shelved only in November 2016.
The Registry’s future lies not just in its traditional role but as a key player in the geospatial data initiative announced in the last autumn budget. It coincided with the publication of a five-year business plan setting out an ambition to become ‘the world’s leading land registry for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data’.
Singh’s job is to make that happen. She took up her post on 1 November after 27 years in the Civil Service, including spells at HM Revenue & Customs and the Treasury.
“I specialised in change, setting up new teams, capability and functions, large scale programmes and projects,” she says, and is perhaps most proud of an invest-to-save project that involved spending £500 million to attract an extra £9billion in revenue.
Immediately prior to Land Registry she was at the Valuation Office Agency as transformation director. That role, she admits “was much more focused on closing offices and cutting numbers”.
At Land Registry there are no such plans. “Within the lifetime of this strategy I don't expect to change the physical shape of the business, we're committed to all the locations we've got,” Singh says. She is even hiring “an extra 20 or so people over the next year… We need skills around designing and delivering change and people who are articulate about why we are doing it.”
Her immediate task is the controversial programme to migrate local land charge searches to a central database, of which she is senior responsible owner. The aim is to end the (literal) postcode lottery of local authorities’ different prices and waiting times, although councils will remain responsible for the so-called CON29 searches.
“The current variation in cost is from £3 to £76, and the time it can take ranges from two days to 10 weeks, so that's not good for customer services or the conveyancing process,” she says.
The goal is to have data from 26 English authorities on the system this year. This will require the procurement of a system to “lift and sift” the data. The actual database is being constructed by Kainos under a contract dating from 2016.
On the wider transformation the aim is to create new “bespoke customer services” through digital channels. But first, the quality of submissions for change in the register needs to be improved. “Over 20% of the information we receive is incorrect, which means we cannot process changes as quickly as we would like.”
Meanwhile, swathes of data will be opened up for re-use. For free?
“We haven't finally decided we're not going to charge for any data set,” Singh says, “but the principal is that it should be freely available as part of the Government strategy.”
As an example of the effect of making data available for free, she cites the experience of the register of overseas ownership. “We had 22 downloads when we were charging; since it's been free 2,000 people have downloaded it.”
Open data project
Looking further ahead, a project called Digital Street will examine what will be possible with open property data in the next decade and beyond. This includes examining the potential of blockchain to secure peer-to-peer transfers of property.
Singh stresses, however, that this work is still in a very early stage: “It is only a proof of concept.”
Real transformation will require data at all stages of the process to be much cleaner and consistent than at present. For a start, Land Registry still does not have a complete register of publicly owned land, let alone of the entire country. The target, part of the Government’s effort to tackle the housing crisis, is to have all publicly owned land on the register by 2020.
All this adds up to a very long term programme, starting from very first principles. Singh claims to be undaunted. “It’s the old saying about how to eat an elephant - one bite at a time.”
Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0