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Civil service chief executive demands Whitehall tech transparency

John Manzoni, chief executive of the Civil Service in the UK, has called for the government to ensure it gets full public trust for Whitehall’s governance of information.

This follows a number of breaches in the private sector (New Statesman Tech has covered incidents at Yahoo!, for example) and a general feeling that Big Data might just get slightly out of control if we let it.

Whitehall data speech

The warning came as part of a speech Manzoni gave (full text is here) to the Reform think tank. He outlined the historical context and stated that data was nothing new, dating back to the Domesday book, but that the mass storage and applications of it were something fresh. “Services driven by open data are already giving people more choice in where they get their healthcare, where they live and where their children go to school,” he said. “There’s even a Great British Public Toilet app – a sort of relief map of the country!”

The issue now is to address the governance of this data and ensure that the UK gets it right, he said. “The impact of data analytics and big data in our lives – for example the way online retailers tailor their recommendations for the food, books and music we buy – is quite familiar. Less has been said about the transformative power of this technology for the delivery of high-quality public services. And it’s time that changed.”

Concrete examples are already being worked upon, he added. “In DWP, for example, providing job seekers with more targeted advice, and opportunities that closely match their personal profiles. The department is also working on data-informed tools, such as interactive visualisations of benefit claimant trends.” Numerous other examples from house prices to tracking sight loss across the UK are cited in the full speech, linked to above.

Caution

The presence of such a lot of data inevitably raises trust issues, he commented. “Trust means giving people confidence that their data is used appropriately and effectively, and that it’s secure, particularly when it’s being shared by different authorities,” he said. “That trust has to be earned.

The civil service has therefore published, alongside existing digital initiatives, a framework for data science in government, he explained. “It is based on the key principles of data security, openness, user need and public benefit. And it highlights the importance of ensuring the data and models we are using are robust.”

The Digital Economy Bill will be part of this, he said. “The introduction of new legislation on data access in the Digital Economy Bill is designed to give confidence that government is doing the right thing. The Bill provides a robust legal framework for sharing data between public authorities, where there is a clear public need and benefit.”

The difficulty, he acknowledged, is going to be the shortage of skills, to which New Statesman Tech has alluded before. How this ends up getting addressed – the National Cyber Security Centre may be a good start – will dictate the extent to which the public is likely to trust the government with its information.

This trust is something that’s likely to work its way through the generations as people grow up with the notion of the authorities holding electronic information on them. For a lot of people still finding their way in the digital world, the disquiet is likely to go on for some time.

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