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Whether it’s NHS waiting times, the scale of cuts in Whitehall or crime statistics, public data is almost always in the headlines. But the government has only recently started to wise up to the potential brought by not just collecting, but analysing and acting upon, that data.

Although government officials have collected data for centuries, the falling cost of technology means it is now easier and cheaper than ever to identify trends and patterns and tweak services based on those lessons.

The UK government set up a new cross-government data programme last month and appointed Paul Maltby director of the scheme, a signal it seems to be taking data seriously.

Who is Paul Maltby?

Paul Maltby is now ‘director of data’ in the Government Digital Service. Although the role sits within GDS, it is external-facing and cuts across government departments, local authorities, the NHS and devolved bodies.

He will be responsible for getting departments to make better use of data, setting up common data policies and governance and creating a ‘modern data infrastructure’ for government.

Maltby was previously open data director at the Cabinet Office since 2013, where he was required to promote data publication, manage requests for datasets and support departments in publishing information.

Before that, he worked in various roles at Leicestershire County Council, the Home Office, Number 10 and the thinktank the IPPR [Institute for Public Policy Research].

What will the new ‘director of data’ do?

As director, Maltby’s main mission will be to get the government to make better use of data.

As part of that, he is required to help to set up a ‘modern data infrastructure’ through common policies and governance across departments and to support the work of analytical, policy, operational and digital teams across government, he wrote in an official blog post.

His main task will be to support the newly-created ‘Government Data Programme’, he explained.

What is the Government Data Programme?

A brand new initiative set up by the Government Digital Service, the data programme has a number of clear aims, as stated in a blog post on GOV.UK. These are:

  • Better operational, policy and economic decisions in government, dramatically cutting costs and improving the way in which government works as a result of modern data access and data science
  • Creating the next wave of digital platforms on which we can build services for the benefit of citizens, underpinned by a new data infrastructure across government
  • A boost to the UK economy as a result of better quality data opened up to those building data businesses
  • To retain citizen trust with a clear approach about what should and should not be done with these powerful tools

It’s very early days – the project has only just got underway – but it’s an ambitious list of tasks. Whether it turns out to be as transformative as suggested or not, time will tell.

The project will be led by Maltby from GDS, but its role is mainly supportive and advisory, according to officials.

“Here in GDS we will be supporting the work of talented analytical, policy, operational and digital teams across government, which will be given a new voice through a Data Leaders Network,” a blog post explained.

What is the Data Leaders Network?

Very little has been publicly released about the Data Leaders Network since Maltby announced its creation at the end of September.

ComputerworldUK understands it will be a senior cross-government working group, with representatives from all major central government departments. Its job will be to promote new approaches to accessing, handling, holding and using data, according to senior sources.

The group will report to a high level board chaired by national statistician John Pullinger, which will include representatives both from inside government and external organisations.

The Cabinet Office says it is still finalising membership of the Data Leaders Network and the ‘high level data steering group’ but will announce the names of the participants 'in due course', via a blog on GOV.UK (of course).

Is the government still recruiting a chief data officer?

Somewhat confusingly, the ‘director of data’ is not the same as the ‘government chief data officer’, a post previously held by Mike Bracken, who left government for the Co-op last month.

The Cabinet Office is yet to confirm what will happen to the CDO role - who will be recruited for it, when, what their responsibilities will be. In fact officials won’t even disclose if it will still even exist, now Bracken has gone.

However a number of data experts around and inside government have warned that the CDO role is still crucial as a strong, single voice who can push for better data literacy and governance in Whitehall.

The person appointed needs to understand the difference between open data, closed, personal data and shared data, the importance of gaining and keeping public trust, and getting departments to work in a truly collaborative way, instead of the default siloed setting. Insiders have put forward a number of potential candidates, compiled here by ComputerworldUK.

Although the CDO will just be one person, their existence would certainly help to signal how serious government is about this agenda.

Why is government so keen on improving its use of data?

In a climate of cuts yet ever-increasing demand on services, many believe that by using data cleverly, public bodies could target scarce resources on the most needy and improve services for all.

By predicting hospital visits, school places or demand for emergency services, for example, public bodies could help to manage and even prevent demand, saving potentially vast sums of money. 

While just one of the aspects of the overall ‘data landscape’, open data has gone from a fringe movement to a mainstream issue. Nowadays few would dare to argue (publicly, at least) against the idea the government should publish its data for scrutiny and reuse.

While it might not be quite the ‘magic bullet’ some imagine, there’s no doubt that data, used intelligently, could transform the way government works.

What’s stopping it?

There are many reasons why government has failed to make better use of its data in the past.

Culture, skills, standalone systems and a tendency to work in organisational siloes have all hampered efforts – and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

The government itself admits it needs to work collaboratively across Whitehall departments and improve skills.

However there are swingeing cuts to Whitehall budgets due to be announced in the autumn statement on 25 November, and rumours of potentially reduced ‘Government as a Platform’ plans.

As with work to transform digital services in the last parliament, some of the plans to improve the use of data within and across departments will face serious opposition. It is not hard to see how it could be disruptive and threaten those with a vested interest in the status quo.

In that atmosphere, can we be confident senior leaders and politicians have the guts and determination to break through Whitehall inertia and succeed where others have failed before?

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