Joint letter from civil society groups urges UK government to take urgent action to overhaul its use of data

Joint press release, London, Monday 15 July 2019

The UK government has the opportunity to transform its use of data, but is missing the opportunity and risks falling behind other countries if it does not invest now, civil society groups have today said.

In an open letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the group warned that failure to invest in better data means it is currently unable to properly understand its own operations and the quality of public services.

The upcoming National Data Strategy offers the chance to seize the new data environment, and use it to deliver better public services, and improve the economy and society for future generations.

But in order to succeed, there needs to be transformative, not incremental, change and there must be leadership from the very top, with buy-in from the Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary and Chief Executive of the civil service. All too often, piecemeal incentives across Whitehall prevent better use of data for the public benefit.

Logos of signatories to joint letter to Secretary of State 140719The letter, signed by the Institute for Government, Full Fact, Nesta, the Open Data Institute, mySociety, the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Royal Statistical Society, the Open Contracting Partnership, 360Giving, OpenOwnership, and the Policy Institute at King’s College London, coincides with the government’s efforts to create a National Data Strategy.

This is the first time the group of think tanks, civil and learned societies have come together to make a united call for sweeping reforms to the UK’s data landscape.

The letter also calls for:

  • Investment in skills to convert data into real information that can be acted upon
  • The government to earn the public’s trust, recognising that the debate about how to use citizens’ data must be had in public, with the public
  • A mechanism for long-term engagement between decision-makers, data users and the public on the strategy and its goals
  • Increased efforts to fix the government’s data infrastructure so organisations outside the government can benefit from it
  • The strategy to have a broader focus than just public service delivery, including in research funding, procurement and legislation

The intervention follows growing concern about problems in the government’s collection, use and sharing of data, including from the National Audit Office about the impact poor quality data has had on the public.

The letter will be sent to the secretary of state today (Monday 15 July), as DCMS begins drafting the National Data Strategy, and ahead of the influential Public Accounts Committee’s evidence session on the subject, with chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni.

Royal Statistical Society’s Executive Director, Hetan Shah, said: “Fashionable interest in sexy things like artificial intelligence in government won’t go anywhere unless we solve some old boring data problems around skills, infrastructure, governance and linkage.”

Full Fact’s Director, Will Moy, said: “Better data is key, not just to better government, but also for a better society. It can help people across the country hold government to account, give them confidence that they are using trustworthy services and allow them to make decisions that can improve their lives.”

King’s College London’s Policy Institute’s Director, Professor Bobby Duffy, said: “The public need to be brought fully into the discussion on how their data are used, in a way that has just not happened in the past. The National Data Strategy provides an ideal opportunity to set the principles of public consent that can serve us for many years to come, not just for a collection of short term initiatives.”

Open Contracting Partnership’s Executive Director, Gavin Hayman, said: “Governments are already using open contracting data to save themselves billions and deliver much better public services. It’s great to see strategy, now let’s get to work building the infrastructure and putting the data to work for citizens.”

Nesta’s Chief Executive, Geoff Mulgan, said: “Data matters for every field of government activity, and in the past the UK has been at the forefront of movements like open data. Now we risk falling behind, with a lack of strategy and grasp. Government is failing to make the most of its own data, and failing to move quickly enough to put in place the new governance arrangements we need to simultaneously earn public trust and maximise the value from data. These problems are eminently soluble – but they won’t be solved without much more concerted leadership.”

Open Knowledge Foundation’s Chief Executive, Catherine Stihler, said: “The UK National Data Strategy must emphasise the importance and value of sharing more, better quality information and data openly, in order to make the most of the world-class knowledge created by our institutions and citizens.

“Without this commitment at all levels of society, British businesses, citizens and public bodies will fail to play a full role in the interconnected global knowledge economy of today and tomorrow.

“We must choose a fair, free and open future for the UK, helping to create a more open world where all non-personal information is open, free for everyone to use, build on and share; and creators and innovators are fairly recognised and rewarded.”

360Giving’s CEO, Rachel Rank, said: “We know from organisations already using it, that the power of open data can be harnessed to benefit both government and wider society. If the Government can walk the talk on its commitments to sharing data in open, standard formats, there is a real opportunity for everyone to understand more strategically how public services are being delivered and to identify needs and changes in different communities.”

OpenOwnership’s Executive Director, Thom Townsend, said: “The UK has some of the world’s most innovative thinking on how to use data to achieve real and lasting public good. This strategy must ensure that Government, central and local, can come together and invest the time, energy and financial resource to deliver a national data infrastructure which matches civil society, business and citizen’s ambitions for more transparency and accountability, economic growth through better use of data and radically improved services.”

The full text of the letter is published here.