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Public services and the new age of data

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Frontline work, New techniques
John Manzoni head and shoulders
John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary

Government holds massive amounts of data. The potential in that data for transforming the way government makes policy and delivers public services is equally huge. So, getting data right is the next phase of public service reform. And the UK Government has a strong foundation on which to build this future.

Public services have a long and proud relationship with data. In 1858, more than 50 years before the creation of the Cabinet Office, Florence Nightingale produced her famous ‘Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the east’ during the Crimean War. The modern era of statistics in government was born at the height of the Second World War with the creation of the Central Statistical Office in 1941.

Chart showing mortality causes in British army 1854-1856
Florence Nightingale's ‘Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the east’ during the Crimean War

How data can help

However, the huge advances we’ve seen in technology mean there are significant new opportunities to use data to improve public services. It can help us:

  • understand what works and what doesn’t, through data science techniques, so we can make better decisions: improving the way government works and saving money
  • change the way that citizens interact with government through new better digital services built on reliable data
  • boost the UK economy by opening and sharing better quality data, in a secure and sensitive way, to stimulate new data-based businesses
  • demonstrate a trustworthy approach to data, so citizens know more about the information held about them and how and why it’s being used

In 2011 the Government embarked upon a radical improvement in its digital capability with the creation of the Government Digital Service, and over the last few years we have seen a similar revolution begin on data. Although there is much more to do, in areas like open data, the UK is already seen as world-leading.

‘Big Data’, tools and techniques

This new digital age of data is utterly changing how we live our lives, how we shop, socialise and consume media. At the heart of this are a range of new tools, techniques and types of data, often rather misleadingly bundled together as ‘Big Data’.

The scale of some data in government can be extremely large (weather data, for example). However, in practice, much of the innovation in public services and data will come through applying new machine learning tools and techniques to the existing data that can be queried and transported around our systems in more modern ways.

The reality is that the whole fabric of government is changing as it becomes digital. More and more data is capable of flowing around government and between government and users. There’s now the potential to access vast amounts of data and powerful tools to help us analyse and use it.

Woman's silhouetted against image of data streams

Necessary changes

But if government is going to seize this opportunity, it needs to make some changes in:

  • infrastructure - data is too often hard to find, hard to access, and hard to work with; so government is introducing developer-friendly open registers of trusted core data, such as countries and local authorities, and better tools to find and access personal data where appropriate through APIs (application programming interfaces) for transformative digital services
  • approach - we need the right policies in place to enable us to get the most out of data for citizens and ensure we’re acting appropriately; and the introduction of new legislation on data access will ensure government is doing the right thing – for example, through the data science code of ethics
  • data science skills - those working in government need the skills to be confident with data; that means recruiting more data scientists, developing data science skills across government, and using those skills on transformative projects

Powering decisions in the front line

One thing to highlight is how the position and status of data, and those working with it, is changing in government. Analysis has too often been seen as the preserve of a policy elite; something for ministers and senior boards rather than the life-blood of operational decision-making in government. And while there has been a steady growth in the use of business intelligence data across operational parts of government, with these new data science tools and techniques we are entering an age when analysis will increasingly be built into new digital services; powering decisions made in the moment by frontline workers. This is a substantial shift, and one that will lead not only to greater efficiency, but also to a more personalised experience of government for citizens.

Data is the foundation of government, a part of our essential national infrastructure, and it cannot be left to chance. The data revolution has shaken entire industries such as retail, transport and financial services, and this disruption is coming for government too.

John Manzoni spoke at Reform about how the Government is using big data and open data to improve public service delivery. You can read the speech here.

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  1. Comment by David Sangster posted on

    A laudable ambition. We need to have a care though over the limits to data interrogation/analysis by just anybody in government. There have been significant pressures on dedicated analysts over the past few years - there simply aren't enough analysts to do the work. Creating data cubes and other solutions for general staff can only get us so far as the construct of the data cubes are far more limited than the raw data. it is also incredibly easy for a non-data analyst specialist to draw the wrong conclusions from data - this won't advance the cause of government or customer service. So alongside any freeing up of access to data, we need to invest in the analytical community within government and grow this area if we are achieve pre-eminence in this so called data driven age.

  2. Comment by Angie Harrison posted on

    The sentiments are great, however, until the legislation is changed there will be barriers to sharing data between central and local government departments. I work in an area that has been trying to access data for verificationa and fraud prevention/detection, which could save the Treasury/Taxpayer millions in losses, however, "confidentiality" and "no legal gateway" are constant phrases used to prevent access to that data and prevent us from actually realising those millions in savings

  3. Comment by Julie Anderson posted on

    *Proud Mam*# ...
    I've been a Civil Servant for 36 years. My son is now also a Civil Servant for DWP as a Data Scientist and his enthusiasm for his work is amazing! The skills required are another level to the kind of knowledge I've built up over the years: he knows several different programming languages - I believe it would the equivilent of speaking several different languages! I obviously can't say too much (hush! hush! and all that...), but the amount of data the DS teams have access to are considerable, and I know they are influencing a lot of changes. To me, it's becoming a different Civil Service to the one I joined in 1981 - we were using KODE machines, and punch-hole tapes to transfer information. I'm impressed at how well (at 54) I can use my Smart phone...