Policy makers in government are not taking full advantage of digital technologies because of a lack of skills and understanding, according to a new report from the Institute for Government (IfG).
Titled Policy Making in a Digital World, it says that poor data management has been exacerbated by a lack of leadership, reflected in the fact that the role of government chief data officer has been unfilled since it was announced in 2017.
It also urges government to trial innovative applications of data and technology in formulating a wide range of policies, but warns that recent failures such as the fiasco over the A-level algorithm mean it must do more to secure public trust.
The report, based on interviews with people from a range of government functions, says policy making can benefit from the increase in the quantity of data available and the increased connectivity of society. The Government has made some strides towards harnessing the potential with the creation of bodies such as the Office for Artificial Intelligence, the Data Science Campus and the Geospatial Commission.
But it is only just beginning to work out how best to exploit the changes in technology.
“While it can point to some award winning examples of doing things differently, performance is patchy,” the report says. “One enduring challenge has been its unwillingness to confront and address longstanding issues with how it manages data and information.
”Even when government has looked ahead, it is striking that such scant attention has been paid to the role that data and technology could play in policy and decision making, with the emphasis usually placed on service delivery and the improvement of administrative processes instead.”
The IfG takes some encouragement from reports that the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings sees the potential in data, but warns that the details are still be sorted out and the recently created data science unit in No 10 could create more problems than it solves.
It also highlights that policy makers have no easy way of finding colleagues with the relevant experience and insights, and that information is scattered across disparate systems and saved in a variety of formats.
It adds that there is a need to raise the level of skills through moves such as the Government Digital Service (GDS) working with the policy profession, and increased emphasis on statistical and numerical numeracy. This should be accompanied by more working in the open, a strengthening of oversight and making GDS responsible for monitoring the use of new, digitally enabled approaches to policy making.
These lead to a series of recommendations that the Government should:
- appoint a chief data officer as soon as possible to drive work on improving data quality, enforcing new standards and dealing with problems with legacy IT;
- place more emphasis on statistical and technological literacy when recruiting and training policy officials.
- set up a new independent body to lead public engagement in policy making, with an initial focus on the use of data and technology.
Lewis Lloyd, IfG researcher and author of the report, said: “When it comes to digital, government is stuck in the past. Policy making is all too often a narrow, closed exercise, but better use of data and technology could make it better informed, more responsive and more collaborative.
“The Government needs to tackle enormous problems with its existing data infrastructure and address a lack of specialist skills and understanding. New technologies also raise ethical concerns, posing risks for privacy and undermining public trust.
“But there is no time to waste. Issues with coronavirus testing data show that investment in data infrastructure cannot wait any longer, just as the A-Level results fiasco emphasised the importance of putting in place structures for effective oversight of new technologies as soon as possible."
Image from iStock, Linda Steward