Why UK government needs a culture of innovation and data sharing
- Posted on April 5, 2022
- Estimated reading time 6 minutes
Technology transformation moves at incredible speed. Just as you’re up to speed, the next innovation arrives and captures the collective imagination.
But for technology in the UK government and public sector, the pace is somewhat more considered. Traditionally, the UK government has (understandably) taken a calm and cautious approach to innovation, technology and data sharing. This is partly because it bears the responsibility of spending taxpayers’ money but also because internal and organisational barriers can obstruct change and progress.
The need to fail forward
However, if the UK government doesn’t embrace a culture of innovation, it will struggle to embrace new ideas and technologies which, crucially, enable them to deliver new and improved services. It risks falling behind and missing valuable opportunities. Unless it moves quickly and learns to ‘fail forward’ through experimentation (the lifeblood of innovation), the UK government could add to its technical debt. This would have a detrimental impact on citizens.
To truly grasp the opportunity, the government must change how it views, uses and shares its most abundant yet underutilised resource: data. Why? So, it can build better products and services, make better-informed decisions, and be used internally to benefit citizens.
The will and ambition are there to make internal data sharing a reality
It’s an all too familiar picture in government: data initiatives siloed off to a select few departments, data being hoarded for fear of misuse, or for ambitious data-sharing projects to be disbanded halfway through due to a lack of technical skills or resources.
It’s not that the government isn’t trying to share data between departments. This objective has been on the agenda since the 1990s – and there are many calls for further change from sources as diverse as the National Audit Office, The National Data Strategy, and GOV.UK pioneer Robert Pope.
Progress is slow, and, as a consequence, the government has realised that it needs to look outside itself for help with transforming internal data sharing.
However, while pilots and projects have been attempted, their success thus far has been limited. The notion of frictionless, secure data mobility between agencies remains a goal just out of reach. It can happen – the COVID crisis has shown that data sharing is achievable. But it needs to be proactive, standardised and baked into the fabric of government, not just as the result of a global pandemic.
As we’ll explore below, there are barriers to internal data sharing from cultural, technological, and legal perspectives.
The challenges to data sharing and how you can overcome them
1. Legacy technology stands in the way
Technology interoperability is essential to data sharing. Yet many government agencies are using disparate systems and services, which is hindering the process of innovation. For citizens, this can hamper their interactions with government, leaving them frustrated that they have to share the same information repeatedly with different departments.
For the government, these interdepartmental walls hold back critical data insights that could lead to better-informed decision making. Legacy tech often leads to a personnel issue: a small number of individuals hold the keys to the castle regarding how the system operates. It further compounds the problem.
Technology transformation, modernisation, and streamlining of systems, services, and software brings an interoperability that will empower data sharing and improve the efficiency and agility of citizen services.
2. Data quality isn’t where it should be
It’s not just systems that the government needs to consider. It’s data quality too. Government agencies need to trust that data is high-quality to make reliable and confident decisions. Inaccuracies, duplicate sets and incomplete data can undermine sharing initiatives and impede effective decision making. When data is shared, how do you ensure that the relevant knowledge and context are shared along with it? These are hard problems to solve. But not impossible.
Master data management and data governance are fundamental to overcoming this challenge. Government agencies need to foster a digital-led approach built on consistent and unified business data.
3. Data sharing isn’t high enough up the agenda
Innovation must move from an aspirational way of thinking to become part of the government’s DNA. Right now, there is cultural hesitancy to revolutionise approaches to data. Change is scary – and many government departments think that data sharing is too challenging to achieve, so they don’t even try. Exploring new ways of sharing data within departments, across departments and outside of government is essential for keeping pace with societal change. Legislation, governance, policies and process don’t always reflect how user needs and expectations have changed. Citizens are consumers, and consumer expectations have stepped up. We all naturally expect Amazon-like levels of service.
Transforming workplace culture takes time, but it can be achieved through collaboration, discussion and commitment. Data stewards should champion the benefits of data sharing to their leadership team and attempt to drive buy-in from the top down.
An outside perspective helps too. Where there are internal skills gaps and bottlenecks, third party specialists like Avanade can empower your people to find solutions and drive projects forward.
4. Building trust in data sharing inside and outside government
Consumer awareness of data privacy is at its highest. The microscope is on the government to ensure that they process personal data securely and compliantly. This pressure can be off-putting for departments with data sharing aspirations. They know they want to share data, but they’re unsure how to do so ethically.
The good news is that innovation and ethics needn’t be at odds. Government agencies can embed ethical principles into the data-sharing lifecycle, from design and development to implementation and operation. By doing so, government agencies can enhance citizen trust by improving transparency between the citizen and state.
Although some may think otherwise, data sharing isn’t automatically bad. Even the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recognises that data sharing is beneficial, and in some scenarios, consent is not always required. “Done in line with data protection law,” says this ICO blog post, “data sharing can drive innovation in technology and exciting new uses of data while protecting the people whose data is being shared.”
The cloud is also a source of unwarranted fear (although this is thankfully now an increasingly rare viewpoint). As the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre highlights: “Using the cloud securely should be your primary concern – not the underlying security of the public cloud.”
A roadmap for the future of data sharing
Everything takes time in government, and budgets are tight. To make things happen, some outside-the-box thinking is needed. The government must clarify its vision for data sharing through roadmaps that drive slow and steady change in parallel with innovative and radical transformation.
It is the combination of the two, in tandem, that will unlock the potential of data sharing in the public sector. With our end-to-end digital government technology and innovation transformation capabilities, Avanade can help you identify a strategy, roadmap and approach to help you share and use data more effectively. The result? You can make better-informed decisions that positively impact the employees and civilians you serve.
“Data sharing” might sound like the latest buzzword, but it’s an idea that is as old as time itself – an idea that delivers tangible benefits to government and citizens alike.