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Guest blog: Fresh thinking needed on the National Data Strategy

Guest blog from Peter Dutton, Head of Public Sector, UKI at Elastic

The government’s plan to build a world-class data economy needs further thought if it is to support and improve the smooth running of critical services to citizens, writes Peter Dutton, Head of Public Sector UK & Ireland at Elastic.

The UK Government calls its National Data Strategy (NDS) “an ambitious, pro-growth strategy that drives the UK in building a world-class data economy while ensuring public trust in data use.” But according to many technology experts, it’s unlikely to fulfill these goals in its current form — and, as Elastic’s head of public sector for the UK and Ireland, I’d like to add my voice and views to the debate.

But first, a recap. During the NDS consultation phase, which ran from September 9 to December 9, 2020, numerous organisations submitted formal responses to the government’s proposed plan, highlighting their concerns over the proposed strategy’s shortcomings.

The roll call of influential experts who took time to respond was impressive. They included data scientists and other data specialists from the Ada Lovelace Institute, the Alan Turing Institute, the Royal Statistical Society, the Open Data Institute and the Centre for Information Policy Leadership (CIPL). Financial services giant Barclays had its say, too, as did IT companies including Zuhlke, Kainos and Faculty.

In fairness, the Government has stressed that the NDS, as published, is only a framework for the action it will ultimately take on data. As Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has pointed out: “It is not the final answer, but part of a conversation about the way we support the use of data in the UK.”

My personal view is that ongoing conversation with stakeholders is essential. As other organisations have pointed out, the NDS needs to go further. Certainly, more precise language is called for, for example, around how data quality should be measured and how data types are to be categorised to allow improved governance and interoperability.

But perhaps my chief observation is that, in its present form, the NDS will not address the typical problems that we at Elastic see every day in our work with the UK public sector. Indeed, it may even add to the challenges that civil servants already face. For example, data silos and technical debt are not adequately tackled, issues around interoperability need consideration, and the NDS should embrace important data categories such as geospatial data.

To rise to the challenge in a way that will help rather than hinder civil servants’ work in a more data-driven public sector, I believe a different approach is needed.

Above all, a more joined-up approach to data services would do much to enable government agencies to centralise data and quickly search for information. This currently exists in structured and unstructured formats across a wide range of disparate departmental and legacy systems. Addressing this complexity would deliver a more flexible, scalable way to store and rapidly analyse data while simultaneously ensuring that rules around security and compliance are observed right across government. It would also enable new analytical workloads to be developed and deployed incrementally as new use cases emerge. And when underpinned by free and open technologies, a joined-up approach would provide a cost-efficient means of achieving these benefits.

Many government organisations worldwide are already using Elastic’s technology in different ways. These include uncovering new insights into economic trends and indicators, analysing medical data to improve care pathways for patients, and keeping citizens and their data safe online. In the UK, these include the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and a secure central government shared service that supports some of the UK Government’s most critical and sensitive work across a range of Whitehall departments.

At the DVLA, engineers are migrating IT systems to a new cloud-based platform as part of a broader digital evolution initiative at the agency. They use the Elastic Stack to centralise logs.  This Elastic-driven observability model has resulted in an enhanced experience for internal use and UK motorists in general.

The secure government shared service was built and developed by cross-departmental government teams and is underpinned by Elastic’s technology for security incident and event monitoring (SIEM).

While very different in purpose, what these two projects have in common is that they enable the public sector bodies concerned to share information from many different sources and at scale. That, in turn, allows users to ‘connect the dots’, spotting trends and anomalies that may have remained under the radar if data stayed siloed in different applications and services. In both cases, a consolidated view has led to deeper insight, better decision-making and, ultimately, better experiences for government employees and the citizens they serve.

From my extensive work in the public sector, I’ve seen first-hand how fresh thinking around  data strategy can significantly contribute to the smooth delivery of critical government services. But the NDS, in its current form, won’t deliver the fresh thinking needed today and represents no match for the challenges that the future will bring.

With the strategy now in its post-consultation phase, I sincerely hope the UK Government will take seriously the concerns expressed by those experts who have contributed to the debate so far and work to integrate their suggestions in its official response, expected in early 2021.

Without these much-needed revisions, there’s a distinct risk that government departments could miss huge opportunities to improve citizen services.

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