IT’S A PEOPLE THING: CREATING A BETTER DATA CULTURE ACROSS GOVERNMENT
DAMA recently hosted a webinar examining the Government’s plans to improve data quality across all departments. The compelling discussion, hosted by our Committee Member Nicola Askham, featured a presentation by James Tucker.
James is Head of the Government Data Quality Hub at the Office for National Statistics. He updated attendees on the Whitehall-led drive to overhaul data quality across the public sector. We also discovered how the role of data professionals can be improved by implementing this future-facing strategy.
You’ll rarely read about seamless government data management projects in the mainstream media. There’s a tendency for journalists to focus on big budgets, difficult deadlines and glitches in delivery which are deemed more interesting for their readers than success stories.
It’s easy to see why this might be deflating for data management professionals working across UK Government departments. However, things should soon start to change for the better thanks to a number of data quality initiatives that are in play.
In 2020, ministers unveiled a new National Data Strategy. This initiative has included the publication of the Data Quality Framework. James says the framework will be used to “get the right data to the right place, at the right time” (to paraphrase the National Audit Office). It will provide a “guiding light for data quality” across departments. These are numerous: 25 ministerial departments, overseeing a total of more than 400 public bodies and agencies, with thousands of employees managing data.
While the framework places focus on providing better data for policymakers it will only succeed with an equal recognition that the people behind the data count, too. That means launching a concerted effort to win their hearts and minds. It’s a case of overhauling outmoded approaches to create “a culture of data quality”.
Cultural challenges of data quality
James leads the Data Quality Hub. Part of the Office for National Statistics, it was established midway through 2021. DAMA has been heavily involved in its launch strategy.
Within the government’s overall data quality drive, building a positive and productive culture is a key part of the Hub’s remit. This will help make the day-to-day experience of data professionals front and centre, rather than departments focusing solely on the data.
It won’t be easy. Departments - and teams within them - are disparate. James says it was difficult to find a succinct definition of culture. So, the Hub decided to explain how culture relates to data quality, and how existing approaches within government impact it, on its own terms.
Data quality management issues identified include: lack of leadership prioritisation; an enduring tolerance to sub-par data quality and a “sticking plaster” mentality; inconsistent approaches and limited knowledge sharing; new data sources bringing unfamiliar challenges; and, perhaps most challenging of all, an inability to determine whether data is fit for purpose.
A new data quality culture will close these gaps, James believes, if it wraps in the following commitments across all departments:
• Shared goals and strategies
• Ongoing data quality assessment
• Creation of best practice internal communities
• Linking departmental approaches to solve emerging challenges
• Closing the gap between data management at source, and data analysis/use
James illustrates the final point by citing an interesting pilot scheme. Data managers working on the emergency services frontline have been trained to understand how analysts might use the information they input, which should in time lead to data-driven policy improvements.
All of these initiatives paint an exciting picture of the future of data management for government services. But as we all know, strategy is one thing; implementation is quite another.
Making the data quality vision a reality
The good news is the Data Quality Framework sets out actionable principles for change. James states these are being adopted to tackle data quality challenges head-on and propel lasting cultural change across government. This will also mark a step-change in how data professionals’ experience their job.
1. A leadership commitment to high-quality data
2. Data quality activity that has users’ needs at the centre
3. Holistic approach to quality assessment, from data collection to use
4. Clear and effective communication of data’s quality in relation to its purpose
5. Better anticipation and understanding of policy/regulatory/technology changes that affect data quality
Ultimately, the principles will underpin a better and more widespread understanding in government that people matter if data quality is to reach new heights. James asserts, however, that the Hub has the right processes in place to guide people on the journey and make a difference.
Steps being taken include: widespread sharing of best practice; training, tools and guidance to build capability; ongoing advice and support, with self-serve products on the way; and a mechanism for data professionals to challenge briefs and help set the direction of their department’s data quality programme.
James says the final point must be prioritised at all levels of seniority, so boosting data literacy is key. However, he adds this will also require everyone who works with data to accept a greater level of accountability.
Conclusion: Quality in, quality out
Sharing the graphic below James concluded by expressing the hope that all data users, across departments, will gravitate to the top-right quadrant:
When that happens, data management for Whitehall departments will truly be a nurturing environment, shifting away from inertia and anxiety towards a culture of learning, and a focus on the future. Innovation and quality will surely follow - and that can only be good news for millions of people who use government services across the UK.
James is keen to learn from external practitioners. To ask him further questions, or to share your own experiences of culture change around data management and data quality at your organisation, please email DQHub@ons.gov.uk