NAO rubbishes government over data usage and storage

21 Jun 19

The government should prioritise collecting quality data to reform public services, the spending watchdog has suggested.

The National Audit Office has slammed the government’s failure to invest in recording quality data and claimed inadequate data has caused incidents like the Windrush scandal.

Data about individuals’ statuses was not adequate enough to identify who was entitled to live in the UK and led to several erroneous deportations, according to the NAO.

But poor data is a government-wide problem and not restricted to the Home Office, the watchdog claimed. Without access to adequate data government departments find it difficult to assess the effectiveness of their policies, the report out today said.

The NAO said that data is “crucial to how successfully government can deliver services that work for the people who use them, improve its systems and processes, and support better decisions.”

But it noted that there is a currently a “culture of tolerating and working around poor data”.

The watchdog recommended the government should use its forthcoming national data strategy in 2020 to “resolve challenges around how to use and share data safely and appropriately, and how to balance competing demands for public money in a way that allows it to invest in data”. 

The strategy will be drawn up by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with help from the Cabinet Office.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data, and individual departments have not made enough effort to manage and improve the data they hold . This can reduce public confidence in government’s ability to collect and use people’s data effectively.

“The right processes, systems and conditions must now be put in place, otherwise the new data strategy will become yet another missed opportunity.”

The report said that there are no cross-government standards on how to record data and claimed that civil servants are used to working within “departmental boundaries” making collaborative work more difficult.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Time and time again we see government departments failing to ensure they have the data they should; data which is used to make decisions about how taxpayers’ money is spent, and to understand how effectively it is used.

“The government has been attempting to ensure that departments have access to good quality data for 20 years now, and the NAO's report pins its failure to do so on strategy and leadership shortcomings.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to using data more effectively to drive innovation across public services, streamline policy making processes and promote economic growth.

“To help the UK build a world-class data economy, we are working with industry and across government on a new ‘national data strategy’ to make sure the future use of data is ethical and benefits business and wider society.” 

Read PF’s profile of former NAO head Sir Amyas Morse here.

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