The ODI: How the public sector can survive in a new, digital world

Jessica Kimbell, GovNet

Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer from the Open Data Institute, Jeni Tennison, reflects on some major learnings the government and the public sector need to take away from the current pandemic in order to address the challenges at hand, and survive in a new digital world.

Jeni opened the Digital Government conference last week and spoke on a panel about the NHS response to the virus. A recording of her session can be found here.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the government and public sector right now? 

The government – and all of us – are facing huge challenges over the next decade, and the ripple effect that Covid-19, Brexit and the climate crisis will have on societies and economies will impact the way we live our lives for decades to come. Because of our need to socially distance – and longer term reduce travel – more of our interactions are and will be digital. We’re also all dealing with a new and rapidly changing context, which means working in more agile and adaptable ways and greater reliance on data to understand the world. We were already undergoing a cultural shift –  a digital and data revolution – this has only been accelerated. 


How does the government go about responding to those challenges?

I see there as being three main stages to the challenges that the government and public sector will be faced with over the next few years:

  1. Response: Uncertain times lie ahead. We need to make sure that we are equipped to deal with unpredictable, fast-moving, complex challenges. In practise, this means establishing, maintaining and iterating on a reliable and adaptable data infrastructure that will allow the government and industry to respond to events in an informed and informally coordinated way. 
  2. Recover: Digital, data and AI will be an important part of our global post-Covid-19 and post-Brexit future. The UK needs to demonstrate leadership in trustworthy data and responsible technology to succeed in a new world.
  3. Resilience: In lulls between emergencies, we need to build resilience. From a data point of view, that’s about creating a reliable data infrastructure, establishing and strengthening data institutions and ensuring we have the right monitoring in place to be able to detect problems rapidly and respond effectively.

The way local government, businesses and communities respond is just as important as the way the central government responds. We all need to support one another, as we have by making face masks, helping the vulnerable or developing symptom tracking apps. Government needs to enable, encourage and loosely coordinate this distributed response. 


How can data play an important role in preparing governments for a digital future?

Data is infrastructure for our digital future. So creating the right data infrastructure and maintaining it is essential. Government needs to look at not only the data it collects directly itself, and get better at requesting and reusing data from businesses, charities and citizen science projects. This data combined provides a rich information landscape that can allow the government to plan better and respond more effectively. When data is collected, analysed and shared it needs to be done in a trustworthy way. Government needs to get good at transparency, accountability and proactive communications to overcome the current challenges and prepare for a digital future. 


How can data enable local governments to provide a better response to the pandemic?

Following the tiered lockdown system approach released by the Prime Minister on Monday 12th October, it’s clear that local government is being given more authority in the local decision making. Local governments know their areas, and the needs of their citizens, best, but can also benefit from data collected at national level, such as the Office for National Statistics’ Covid-19 infection survey or calls to 111, disaggregated to describe the local context. To make informed decisions about business closures and social mixing, local governments need to be able to rely on a data infrastructure that is populated by national public bodies, as well as businesses, charities and citizens from across their area and beyond. If this is done effectively, patterns will start to emerge in local areas, and councils can learn from one another and the effectiveness of local measures. 

This is not necessarily an exercise in collecting more data – local authorities are already strapped for money, time and resources. To provide a better and more streamlined approach to the pandemic, local governments need to bring together what they’ve got and get access to datasets they currently can’t use. Local business, schools and community initiatives will already have much of the data that is needed to provide a representation of how Covid-19 is affecting their area socially and economically. 


How can the NHS get the most value from data to manage and control covid?

Delivering good healthcare in the height of a global pandemic is clearly the top priority for the NHS, but the NHS has a bigger role to play in the UK’s collective response. The NHS acts as an enabler, and data on patient health, clinical PPE shortages or an outbreak in a specific localised trust can give researchers, businesses and communities the insight they need to focus efforts on the areas that need it most. 

It is also important for the NHS to support the public information landscape, to help people understand why they need to play their part in adopting public health measures. Sharing data on infections, hospitalisations, intensive care capacity, and deaths as well as vaccines and clinical trials enables journalists to communicate the landscape to the public and it also provides clear rationale behind decision making that restricts people’s freedom. Lack of this transparency paves the way for speculation and guesswork, which ultimately undermines the public health response.

Through all this, the NHS needs to be aware of how the eventual use of data influences its collection and demand for testing and treatment. People who are concerned about data about them being used by the police or immigration authorities might deliberately mislead or decide not to use apps or services, even when it would be in their, and wider society’s, best interests.


What are some of the biggest challenges governments face when using data?

Broadly, there are two blockers governments face when implementing digital and data transformations; cultural barriers and technical challenges.

At a technical level, many government departments are using legacy systems that don’t interact well between one another. There is also a lack of standards adoption and interoperability across the public sector that make data sharing, and the ability to gather insights from multiple data sets to solve problems, hard. 

Culturally there are concerns around sharing data within the public sector. Clearly, there needs to be controls and regulation around what types of data the government can share, even between government departments, but there are also cases where it would be  in the public interest to share data or even make it openly available. Good, adaptive data governance needs to be put into place so the government is not sharing too much data, but it is sharing enough - this is a balance we need to work on and get right and norms and context changes over time.


How do governments overcome privacy and ethical issues on data?

It’s important that the government does not see privacy and ethics as issues to be overcome, but as building blocks for their approach to data. The National Data Strategy needs to set the tone, to recognise the importance of trustworthy and responsible uses of data, and the spending review to put in place investment to embed these considerations in practice both within and outside government.

We need to learn from where things have worked – and haven’t worked – across government. The ONS response to Covid19 crisis, for example, has been excellent, responding quickly to the data demands raised during the crisis. In other places, we have seen a lack of coordination, poor data sharing, concerns about misuses of personal data, and poor communications that overall diminish trust in the government’s use of data. These trust deficits can have real public health consequences.

Meeting citizen expectations and keeping their trust about the use of personal data requires proactive transparency, listening to people’s concerns, and changing course when things go wrong. We need to talk about the success and share them, but we also need to talk about the mistakes and lessons learnt, so the same mistakes don’t happen twice. We need these stories and examples to create a strong data strategy that builds an open, trustworthy data ecosystem that  puts the UK at the forefront of digital.