Government appreciates the value of data but has not been giving sufficient priority to exploiting its potential, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO)
Titled Challenges in using data across government, it says the importance of investing in good quality data is not well understood and there is a culture of tolerating and working around poor data.
This is despite the Government planning to publish a data strategy next year, and the efforts of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to encourage good practice. It has not made the progress it expected, largely because staff were diverted to working on EU exit issues.
DCMS is the only department that refers to data as a strategic asset in its 2018 single departmental plan, and while the NAO says of the seven of those it examined had data strategies they were of varying maturity.
The report attributes the problems to a lack of leadership, funding pressures that often push data projects onto the back burner, and severe shortcomings in the quality of data. It highlights how the latter factor contributed to the Windrush controversy in which immigrants from the Caribbean have been deprived of the right to live in the UK despite having come to the country legally.
A lack of common data models and standards also causes problems – the NAO found more than 20 different ways of identifying businesses and individuals across 10 departments and agencies – and is often related to a continuing reliance on old legacy technology.
All this is contributing to a lack of time of accurate, timely and proportionate data that is hindering efforts to get the best value from public money or use it more effectively.
It urges DCMS and the Cabinet Office to take a number of steps, including using the data strategy to address the barriers to the better use of data, and to set up clear cross-government accountability, governance and funding for data to support delivery of the strategy.
There is also a need for rules, standards and better ways to collect and manage data, and to identify datasets critical to government functions.
Recommendations for all departments are to put in place effective governance, set out data requirements in business cases and implement guidance for frontline staff on how it should be handled.
Gareth Davies (pictured), head of the NAO, said: "Government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data, and individual departments have not made enough effort to manage and improve the data they hold. This can reduce public confidence in government’s ability to collect and use people’s data effectively.
"The right processes, systems and conditions must now be put in place, otherwise the new data strategy will become yet another missed opportunity."
Meg Hillier MP, chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, highlighted the data quality issue, saying the Windrush scandal should serve as a reminder of the potential human cost.
“The Government needs to learn from these shortcomings, and take urgent action to address them,” she said.
Image from NAO