I was going through some old files on my laptop the other day and came across my old 2020 calendar. Flicking through to May, my eyes automatically scanned to Friday 8th where I’d marked up “7am, DHSC, Victoria Street” – and the memories came flooding back.
You see, that was the time and day that our small team arrived at the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care to start work supporting the government’s pandemic response. Our band of four quickly realised there was much to do.
With the UK locked down and billions being spent on the furlough scheme, the task was twofold: “Get us out of lockdown and give us sight of how the pandemic is changing” and “we need near real time reporting”. Those were the two asks both made on the first morning. By the end of that first day we knew the need for accurate data, buttressed by strong information governance and privacy standards, was absolutely vital.
By day two we knew that we needed to provide the platform and engineering capability to consolidate and make available terabytes of data for data scientists and data analysts to use – and we were at the very heart of these efforts.
That’s because when used well, data can provide decision and policy makers alike with all the information and analytics capability they require to steer their strategic and frontline decision-making, prioritise scarce resources and accurately track the impact of policies and programmes. Data, after all, is one thing government is not short of. Its services and programmes both need and generate huge amounts of data. The ability to access the data though, at the start of the pandemic, was, however, woefully inadequate.
The priority, then, was how to capture and use it to best effect – especially when confronted by a (hopefully) once in a generation pandemic.

Striking the right data balance in government image Data Platform? What Data Platform?

Looking back to May 2020, there’s no doubt that it was the most dynamic environment any of us had experienced. 
Lucy Vickers, seconded in from the Office for National Statistics as Deputy Director for Data and Analytics for the programme, recalls: “We were tasked with doing near real time reporting so naturally I asked ‘Where’s the data?’ I rapidly discovered that the data was held in many places; across organisations, across formats – and it was challenging to deliver that insight.”
Although we were working from a standing start, we didn’t need to waste time explaining to the customer why data is so important. From our work across government, we know that policymakers now increasingly view data as an asset and generator of value.
Organisations have long been embedding data related activities in their digital transformation work, using such programmes as the catalyst for putting data at the heart of the organisation, as opposed to being a transactional by-product of operation. The platform we were creating needed to drive up quality and massively reduce the manual effort to consolidate data and generate insightful reports – all while respecting citizens’ privacy and ensuring the correct legal basis existed for sharing and consolidation.
But perhaps unsurprisingly, as data’s importance has increasingly taken root in government, so too have corresponding challenges around governance, management and ethics. Ensuring data is fit for purpose is one of the key themes of the UK’s National Data Strategy and it’s one that will help generate greater citizen trust in how government handles our data.
This only happens, however, if data is protected and citizens’ privacy rights are not infringed. Key challenges arise where data management and governance aren’t in place and this knowledge was at the very heart of our approach to constructing the data platform.

Strengthening the defence

We quickly established a secure engineering and data analytics environment to primarily enable research, analysis and statistics. We also worked within departmental and programme structures to help develop and iterate a Data Protection Impact Assessment which became a key design document. “The platform was in place within weeks” recalls Lucy. “And although a bumpy ride, the programme could not have delivered what it did without the capability put in place by the BAE Systems team. The flexibility, collaboration and delivery ethos they displayed is something I haven’t seen before or since in government.”
Additionally, the team considered and applied latest guidance from the regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – notably the accountability tracker and the data access information hub.
In a fast-moving, multi-supplier and collaborative environment the rigour of these external anchors, along with the “Five Safes” (safe data, safe projects, safe people, safe settings, safe outputs) proved invaluable. They served as common points of reference which reinforced trust amongst decision-makers, as well as accelerated decision-making and enabled the swift prioritisation of improvements, particularly when engaging with assurance and compliance functions.

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In the same way hybrid working looks here to stay, so too does a step change in data access. With the rapid pace of the digital revolution showing no signs of abating, the government has ambitious plans to harness the potential of data in health and care, while maintaining the highest standards of privacy and ethics.
At the same time, new legislation and guidelines, rules and procedures, are all taking shape on the horizon: the European Union recently published its Data Governance Act, jostling for position with, for example, the DHSC's health and social care data strategy.
But while this feels like a moment in flux, we know enough to conclude with some certainty that enabling government to fully harness the power of data holds the key to stronger public services. This must not happen, however, at the expense of the rights and freedoms of individual citizens.
It’s a balance to strike, for sure, but it can be done. Let’s get to work.

About the author

Andy Lethbridge is Global Consulting Director and Head of Consulting, Central Government, at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence


Further reading

  • Client Conversation: Fighting Covid, Fighting Cancer . What did you do at the start of the pandemic if you had cancer? Andy Lethbridge sits down with Dr Lennard Lee to discuss how the effective use of data helped reduce risks and protect patient care
  • Client Conversation: Delivering a Clean Bill of Data Health . From the rainforests of Africa to the inferno of the pandemic, Johanna Hutchinson’s has been a career shaped by an eclectic range of challenges big and small. She sits down with Andy Lethbridge to talk data, delivery – and gorillas
  • Looking to transform? Why sometimes it pays to renovate, not rebuild Why sometimes it pays to renovate, not rebuild. When it comes to delivering technology and change, it can be tempting to focus on the shiny and the new, says Andy Lethbridge. He explains why it’s actually often better to build on what is already in place…
  • Health check: charting the ethical use of data . Data now plays in any major public health programme – but seizing the opportunities it presents is one thing, protecting the privacy of individuals is quite another. However, that’s exactly what happened during the Covid-19 response, as Nick Rhodes and Andy Lethbridge explain…
  • Resilience – so much more than we think . Andy Lethbridge reflects on his experiences and lessons learned from working at pace, in high pressure environments over the last 18 months
  • Data, data everywhere, too much for us to link? Policymakers are increasingly reliant on data to strengthen government performance and drive better, more citizen-centric public services. But this evolution does not always run smooth. Here, Andy Lethbridge spotlights the themes and challenges we are seeing in our day to day work across central government

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Andy Lethbridge

Global Consulting Director and Head of Consulting, Central Government, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence