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Nesta calls for Digital Audit Office for government



Report says Whitehall needs a more systematic approach to retaining information and knowledge

Innovation foundation Nesta has called for the creation of a Digital Audit Office for government as a step towards improving its retention of important information.

It has made the call in a new report, Can government stop losing its mind? that says poor record keeping, inaccessible data storage and outsourcing of projects mean that government is at risk of losing vital information and making unnecessary mistakes.

The report says that an array of new technologies now make it possible to organise organisational memory more effectively but these are not being used effectively in Whitehall.

Instead, issues such as staff churn, silo working, poor information sharing across departments, outsourcing and a failure to treat information as a valued asset are causing “memory loss” in government.

As a response, the report says government needs to use available technology for the systematic capture of information ranging from policy decisions to emails and conference calls. Also no policy discussion should be considered complete until it is properly archived for future use.

Accountability, ethics and transparency

The creation of a Digital Audit Office would be a step towards this. It could deal with accountability, ethics and transparency, and improve the work between Whitehall and bodies such as the National Audit Office or Information Commissioner's Office.

It would also promote compliance with the report’s recommended policies for federated knowledge.

Other recommendations include mandatory processes to make open access to and sharing of data the default, both within government departments and for suppliers. Data should be searchable and retrievable for both humans and machines.

This should extend to “rich data” such as discussions, emails and conference calls, both internal and between the government, third parties and citizens.

Another step would be to build data reciprocity into supply chains. Open data licensing, open APIs and open access would help increase data supply across government, and increase demand, the report says.

Ethics standards

This would be accompanied by the development of data ethics standards, which should address uses of data and algorithms, and ensure there is clear accountability for data usage. It must also be responsive to the pace of technological innovation.

In addition, there is a need for a culture of network thinking, with a commitment to learning and sharing regardless of which tools are used.

Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta, said: “Too often government forgets more than it remembers; the lessons of policy successes and failures are lost; and research studies are buried.

“An important justification for a permanent professional civil service is that it organises government's memory well. As Brexit pulls in ever more civil servants, this problem - already visible on issues as varied as rough sleeping and PFI - risks becoming more serious.  

“This report challenges government to use an important public asset much more efficiently, and shows how this can be done.”

Image: Detail of report cover

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