Having spent more than a decade working at the centre of the civil service, I know more than most what the run up to a major fiscal event feels like. The names of these events keep changing: when I first started as a wide-eyed fast-streamer we were fixated on the autumn pre-budget report and the spring budget. Now we have the Spring Statement and Autumn Budget, which this year will be combined with a three-year Spending Review.
Whatever the name, or the scope, the process is loosely the same. Lead officials in departments are appointed and try to start early. They talk to HM Treasury and their ministers to get a feel for the date, the scale and the likely priorities of the event. They start planning how to bring together multiple strands of activity to come up with a comprehensive bid. The goalposts change on a regular basis: their teams will plan, replan, and then replan again. Maintaining momentum during a long, and drawn-out process is tough. Corralling financial information across organisations with budgets running into the billions, priorities which touch every aspect of people’s lives, and tens of thousands of employees is like knitting spaghetti in a gale.
I have no doubt that this year’s run-up to the Autumn Budget and Spending Review has felt much the same – but with the added pressure of Brexit implications. Oh, and a country trying to recover from a global pandemic, which has dented the economy, changed the shape of how we work, and is a long way from being over.
It's unlikely that data or analytics will feature heavily in any of the announcements. The recovery of our public services, and “levelling up” will, and should, dominate the headlines. We can expect to see a continued emphasis on the environment and climate change as we get closer to COP 26. Behind the scenes though, government departments and local authorities must be looking to data to enable and underpin their rebuilding.
Even in these constrained times, I hope that settlements with departments include substantial spend to help meet some of the data-enabling priorities of ministers, and the CIOs, CDOs, and tens of thousands of Digital, Data and Technology staff who work tirelessly to keep the vast digital infrastructure going. These need to cover tackling legacy infrastructure; accelerating the battle to improve data foundations; improving the data literacy of both civil servants and the public; maintaining the focus on data sharing that was so successful in the height of the pandemic; and automating processes. And doing all this while maintaining the public’s trust that they can handle and use data in increasingly innovative ways.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen promising signs that the government understands the value of the data it holds, and the work needed to unlock it. During 2020 and 2021 the key data policy departments have maintained a steady output of strategy and policy documents (the National Data Strategy, AI Strategy, Data: a new direction, to name but a few) highlighting their commitment to achieve (or maintain) the UK’s position as a global leader in data and innovation. This was important before Brexit; as the government looks for post-Brexit success stories it will become particularly vital.
Wednesday’s announcement will probably sound like a political one, with as much positivity as is possible against a backdrop of increasing rates of Covid infections and a debate about the sustainability of the pressure on the NHS. But behind the scenes it will mark the end of a long period of frantic work for the public servants responsible for understanding departmental spending; and the start for those responsible for delivering against it. Unlocking the vast amount of untapped data held by central and local government can provide vital insight for decision-makers, improve public services, generate significant savings, and much more. The demand to do this is urgent; the technology is tested, scalable and flexible enough to meet the demand; but we need sensible investment, the courage to innovate, and to find a way to get data expertise embedded in senior leadership.
By Martine Clark, Head of Government sector