Whitehall’s Digital Transformer 

Digital Transformation Lead at the National Audit Office Read time: 5 mins
Having data is one thing, effectively exploiting its potential is quite another. At a recent BAE Systems Cross-Government Forum we heard from Yvonne Gallagher, Digital Transformation Lead at the National Audit Office, about how government can turn data into delivery. In this guest blog she explains how policymakers can turn data to their advantage.
 Whitehalls digital transformer imageMy career has been all about technology. I’ve been a CIO in the private sector and a couple of government departments. And five years ago I joined the National Audit Office (NAO), a time which coincided with government starting to look at digital transformation.
 
The NAO’s role is to scrutinise public spending for Parliament – our public audit perspective helps Parliament hold government to account and improve public services – and we’re always keen to get our experts in to offer their viewpoint. We do this via our publicly available reports but I’ve also been involved in helping departments with a lot of their activity, some of which has been around data. One thing’s for sure – there is much to do.
 

Setting expectations

The prevalence of data within government is now well established but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that it’s being used in the most effective way. On the contrary, NAO reports over the past 20 years have chronicled various missteps and missed opportunities, all rooted in the unwelcome fact that legacy systems still hold sway over government machinery. So while the amount of data has increased, its quality still leaves much to be desired.
 
We recently completed a landscape review which drew together our experience of data from our studies across government. One of the things that we wanted to do was identify some of the expectations around government data and how far governments are moving in terms of achieving that. For example, new ministers often come in and say that data sharing is really important, and talk about reducing the burden on citizens and the power of analytics.
 
Now don’t get me wrong, all of these aims are really good – it’s important to have aims and ambitions.

And there’s no doubt that some progress has been achieved, but in reality they are not because there are significant blockers, which are not yet getting addressed.
 

What’s stopping better use of data?

There are many factors at play here. Everyone thought the Digital Economy Act would be very important as it removed legislative barriers to data sharing, so in theory government departments can now share data with each other. And GDPR has also come in, which is very good for protecting the citizen but has generated issues around implementation.
 
NHSX CEO, Matthew Gould, has cited the example of a hospital not releasing information to a hospice to make life more comfortable for someone’s direct palliative care. This shows how people are interpreting policy at their individual job and are clearly worried about committing inadvertent transgressions. They don’t know if it is ok or isn’t ok – and this is causing a lot of problems with data sharing.
 
And then there are resource and culture issues. Take HMRC, which is inundated with requests but is very focused on data privacy and security, so they don’t feel inclined to provide it without a lot of safeguards around it. And all departments are under huge resource pressure – it’s not that people don’t want to share, but the priorities and the effort involved is a major inhibitor.
 
And then there is the perennial issue of legacy. Unfortunately, business cases for new systems are created as if the data is fine and up to date, so no funds are allocated either implicitly or explicitly to deal with the data. We see this over and over again. The Windrush situation demonstrated the impact of decisions based on inadequate data. It requires manual effort to make the data fit for purpose and to extract the relevant information. This limits the benefits of new policies or systems unless the underlying data quality is improved.
 
There is also a lack of agreed cross-government standards – there is no standard way for collecting citizen data, for example. No one in government is truly in charge of this – different bodies seem to take it in turns and the result is that data is not treated as a strategic asset, even though it absolutely should be. 
 

Creating the conditions for success

So, what can be done? The good news is that there are some practical steps for government to improve data. Firstly, government to have a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve. To do this, it needs a clear plan in place, leadership and accountability and the funding to make it possible.
 
Secondly, it also needs to have the infrastructure in place to make it work. High quality data, data standards to improve consistency and systems and tools which talk to each other are all pre-requisites. And thirdly, it needs the conditions in place to make it work. This comes down to creating a secure environment, legislation to enable change and the capability to secure change.
 
Is this easy? Of course not. But is it necessary? Absolutely.
 
About the author
Yvonne Gallagher is Digital Transformation Lead at the National Audit Office where she focuses on assessing the value for money of the implementation of digital change programmes.
 

Further Reading

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Yvonne Gallagher Digital Transformation Lead at the National Audit Office 28 April 2020