Whitehall’s dependence on poor quality data has compromised policy programmes and contributed to major public scandals, including Windrush, according to a new report by the National Audit Office.
The spending watchdog found that “a culture of tolerating and working around poor data” was hindering the government’s ability to make evidence-based decisions and deliver new policies.
Ministers have set out plans to produce a new national data strategy and position “the UK as a global leader on data, working collaboratively and openly across [departments]” by 2020.
But the NAO warned that government must “resolve fundamental challenges around how to use and share data safely and appropriately” and secure “proportionate investment in data” if the strategy is to succeed.
Funding pressures, legacy systems, a shortage of standards, poor quality data and lack of cross-department sharing are just some of the challenges the NAO highlighted. The report also warned that there had been a lack of leadership across government since data policy was transferred, controversially, from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in 2018.
“Responsibility for data policy and data ethics sits within DCMS, but it has not made the progress it expected in establishing its leadership or developing the national data strategy, largely because staff were diverted to EU Exit work,” the reported revealed. The government pledged in 2017 to a new chief data officer position by 2020, but has not yet done so. “The two cross-government groups on data have not met regularly in 2019,” the NAO noted.
The auditor has called on government to use the data strategy as an opportunity to clearly articulate how it can overcome existing barriers to improve its use of data. In order to support the strategy, government should identify its critical datasets, develop cross-government rules and “set up clear cross-government accountability, governance and funding for data”, the watchdog said.
Meg Hillier, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described poor quality data as “perennial concern”. “The Government has been attempting to ensure that departments have access to good quality data for 20 years now, and the NAO’s report pins its failure to do so on strategy and leadership shortcomings.
“The Government needs to learn from these shortcomings, and take urgent action to address them. The Windrush scandal should serve as an important reminder of the human cost of its’ failure to have good quality data.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to using data more effectively to drive innovation across public services, streamline policy making processes and promote economic growth.
“To help the UK build a world-class data economy, we are working with industry and across government on a new National Data Strategy to make sure the future use of data is ethical and benefits business and wider society.
“The National Audit Office’s report highlights the opportunities presented by our forthcoming strategy and we look forward to progressing this important work.”