• Adrian Harvey, Partner |
4 min read

In a transforming world where technology is the foundation for how public services are delivered, an effective data strategy is clearly key. Data must be allowed to flow, safely and securely, between departments and organisations so that services can be joined up and insights can be derived to drive continuous improvements to the citizen experience.

But data is also complex. Huge amounts of data are now generated every day. Managing, analysing and sharing it can be challenging. So, how can central government and other parts of the public sector harness all the potential of data effectively? This was the subject of the latest workshop we hosted with techUK recently as part of a series of events focused on how we can achieve the vision of ‘Building the Smarter State’.

Data building blocks

Unsurprisingly given the importance of the topic, there are significant levels of work actively ongoing across government to achieve a data-driven state. There is a comprehensive National Data Strategy in place and the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) is leading the charge to define how departments can share and structure data in the best possible way. The CDDO is collaborating with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to create a Data Marketplace that public bodies can access. The ONS is also the lead delivery partner for the government’s Integrated Data Service which will be a cloud-based, secure research environment for analysts.

However, it was clear in our discussion that many of the old challenges remain. Much data still sits in silos and is difficult for other parts of central government to obtain. Data quality is another perennial issue. Frequently, it is not standardised and is held in a variety of structured or unstructured formats. This makes interoperability difficult. Data may also be ill-defined and contain errors and duplications. It was estimated that users often need to spend 60-70% of their time cleaning the data first before they can actually do anything with it. This is a drain on valuable time and resource, dragging productivity and efficiency down.

Private sector learnings

But despite these barriers, it is also clear that real progress can be made. There is a lot that central government can learn from the experience in the private sector, which also has to grapple with the complexities of managing and leveraging data. For example, at KPMG we have done significant amounts of work with financial institutions, in particular around the requirements for Know Your Customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering checks. These regulatory obligations can be challenging to fulfil and keep on top of in real time when customer circumstances change or new red flags may emerge at any time. KYC can’t be a ‘one and done’ – it has to be dynamic.

What we have seen in our work with major banks is that what was once viewed as primarily an operational problem can in fact be looked at as a digital problem. It is possible to digitise policy, by which I mean that if you understand the requirements at a detailed level, you can then capture the reference data needed for the problem you’re solving. It’s about homing in on what you actually need. You don’t want large, cumbersome data sets. You want specific data services that really target the thing you’re trying to serve or fix. In this sense, less is more. We have been able to help our banking clients build targeted solutions for precise needs in a Big Data environment.

Similar principles and techniques could be applied to the public sector, across tax, benefits and financial databases, patient information in the NHS, environmental and ESG reporting information, and more. Investment is needed – but the returns are clearly there.

Managing security and privacy

Privacy and data security are obviously key concerns. The security of data, especially sensitive national data as well as personal data relating to citizens, is absolutely paramount. But there are some highly encouraging technical developments here, such as PETS (privacy-enabling technologies) that are being developed by the likes of Google and Microsoft. These bring new forms of encryption such that data processors can access information and run analytics over it without actually being able to ‘look inside’ and see the identity. It is possible to share data but retain privacy. For bringing data sets together across government, that is really powerful.

Momentum is building

Then there is AI, which could supercharge our ability to run analyses across data and unlock game-changing insights. There will be governance issues to ensure that AI is used in appropriate ways and is serving specific purposes. But the potential is enormous.

While the discussion revealed some ongoing challenges, it also showed that momentum is building and leaps are beginning to be made. Data is critical to creating a smarter state – and the tools and techniques are emerging to help us achieve just that.