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This is a transcript of the remarks made during a discussion with Paul Maltby, Director of Open Data and Government Innovation at the Cabinet Office at an event held on Tuesday 25 March 2014 by the think tank, Reform.
The 2014 Budget confirmed what many suspected – that the pressure on public finances will certainly continue for this Parliament and, in all likelihood for years to come. This means successful public service reform remains a top priority for UK central government. With less money to spend, new and innovative ways of delivering public services have to be found; the potential of technology and data must be harnessed to deliver these efficiencies. In February the Government awarded £1.5 million to projects that unlock data from public bodies, and in April’s Budget the Chancellor announced a further £42 million investment in the Alan Turing Institute for Data Science, to strengthen the UK’s aim to be a world leader in the analysis and application of big data.
Of course, data is only useful to the Government – or the public – if it supports them in making a decision. Moreover, raw data holds little value to the majority of the population who have yet to grasp its full potential in their day-to-day lives. A technological cultural change is happening, but there is more the Government can do to speed it up. The skills of the civil service must be improved so that the opportunities for innovation in our public services, and the wider economic benefits this brings, are better understood. Equally important is the need to foster a culture that accepts a certain level of risk in order to test new and innovative approaches to public service delivery. This cultural change requires leadership and permission from Ministers and Senior Civil Servants, with explicit reassurance that not only is it acceptable to take risks in search of better solutions, but that such behaviour will be visibly rewarded.
To ensure such reforms deliver the required savings, cultural change and wider permissions cannot be driven from the top-down. The public will only engage with the data and reform agenda if people understand how it is relevant to them, including identifying what decisions they face that could be informed by it, as well as the wider benefit of making their own data available in an appropriate format. This requires permission from the individual or the provider, which in itself requires assurance that this proves no risk to their security. To encourage data sharing the public and industry must be reassured that their data is controlled but also offered incentives to do so. We often share data about ourselves with retailers in order to get better deals. The Government must communicate similar service “deals” that the public will be able to access if their data is shared.
Innovation and reform remain vital to this Government if it is to continue to deliver effective public services. To succeed, it must harness the ongoing pressure on public finances to drive a change in the culture of the civil service and the wider public – with stronger leadership from the top and greater acceptance of the risks and benefits of innovation.