February 24th 2022

Data Leadership in difficult times

Public servants have been at the heart of responding to the shocks of Brexit and a global pandemic, both of which followed far too hot on the heels of the 07/08 global financial crisis and the resulting years of austerity. There are some small glimmers that 2022 might offer just a little more capacity for strategic planning, rather than largely tactical responses.

Decoration Element

If this is the case, then this is data leaders’ time to shine. In this first sector note, we’ve deliberately focused on data leadership, rather than looking in more detail at trends in technology, processes or policies. The civil service is on a journey with its data leadership: the establishment of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) last January was a great starting point, but there’s clearly more to do to drive forward consistent and coherent change.  

The list of priorities for data leaders could be endless and all consuming. Data will drive and underpin every major change needed this year: prioritising will be as essential as it is difficult. My top picks for the year would be relentlessly continuing to invest in the foundations of data management; having the courage to break departmental siloes and work across boundaries; promoting data skills and literacy at the most senior levels; and a plea for more clarity and consistency in who sets the direction for the most critical AI and advanced analytics growth areas. There’s also the minor requirement of managing to do all of these things while advising ministers on how to build a pro-innovation, independent data policy framework on an international scale which doesn’t set fire to the data-sharing relationship with our EU partners.

Investing in data foundations, and working across boundaries
As the country continues to recover, data sharing across departments has to stay at the forefront of leaders’ minds. New legislation might help with this, but there’s no doubt that most of the barriers to data sharing have nothing to do with the data protection legislation, regardless of what your grumpy data protection lead has told you. Cross-departmental funding and delivery incentives would help here (which may feel as unrealistic as our plea for a precedented year…). Proper investment in data foundations and a ruthless focus on the task in hand will also really help: it’s easier to identify where and how to get insight from data if you know what you hold, where it is, and have confidence in its quality. Towards the end of last year we saw an encouraging increase in tenders for data governance: DDaT leads will need to continue to fight their corner for the significant investment needed to bring a legacy estate with ageing processes up to date. A silver lining to some of the recent, damning, judgements on the real cost to the public (as individuals, and the public purse) of aging legacy systems may be that they help get some floundering business cases finally over the line.

Data Literacy: better trained leaders make better decisions
When we’re getting lost in the weeds of all the facets needed to produce a data-driven culture, it’s helpful to return back to the “why” of it all. There are many ways of looking at this: for me, it always comes back to enabling better decision-making. Sometimes that means automating the straightforward decisions (with a whole other level of ethical and governance complexity if we bring in AI…), sometimes it means gathering data together and using complex tools to generate insights to help answer knotty questions. Those making the decisions about which processes can be automated, which laws need to be written, and which interventions will work need a level of understanding of the data. The level of understanding for those such as our highly trained data scientists who live and breathe it is easy to make the case for; but we can also unlock so much potential if all permanent secretaries, chief executives and ministers increase their level of data and digital skills. Here at Methods Analytics, we’ll be talking about this all year…

Data Policy
The post Brexit debate continues to rage on. Obviously civil servants aren’t allowed to call it Brexit anymore (which isn’t new by the way – that instruction to departments started as soon as we were in the Implementation Period), but there’s going to be a lot of noise about the future of the UK’s independent data policy regime. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is looking for more industry engagement and clarity over the benefits, and fewer 100+ page consultation documents that only the most technically strong and time-rich can assess. DCMS are usually one of the leading departments for external research and engagement on data policy, but it’s hard not to look at a document that long and dense with some suspicion. There is so much potential, and so much risk, in this area: we’ll be watching the balancing act with great interest throughout 2022. 

By Martine Clark, Head of Government sector

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