The UK Government has published the framework for the new National Data Strategy and launched a 12-week consultation. In the wake of the pandemic, the strategy hopes to underpin recovery in the post-Brexit era, with the priority to develop a policy framework to unlock the value of data across the economy.

The vision is one of data-fuelled growth. Spoken to in the Digital Secretary’s introduction is a “thriving, fast-growing digital sector” with the UK a “nation of digital entrepreneurs, innovators and investors”. It’s nice to have the government finally recognise something many businesses have known for years: that the future is in data, and this will power businesses and the economy. Like any good investment, it needs a solid strategy and the actual investment to drive it forward. In the document, there are plans to hire more analysts and upskill people through the education system and training.

The opening line in Dowden’s forward restates that is he “unashamedly pro-tech” and the strategy goes on to identify how the government seeks to embrace technology going forward. The government is certainly pro-technology. Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings’s many blogs point out that he has studied Silicon Valley and he is likely one of the drivers behind this approach to data.

One key part of this is to do more with government data. This includes using data to improve public services as well as inform decisions at scale. With the increasing use of data in government, it’s likely that this will result in a more centralised system of control. The strategy speaks to a “whole-government” approach and promises to create the role of Government Chief Data Officer. The strategy also mentions the recently re-raised controversial idea of a digital identity.

For a strategy depending on personal information, especially the type the government has access to, public trust is paramount. Following the backlash over student results, the strategy outlines government plans to pilot approaches to algorithmic transparency. Another tactic which could help win public approval for increased data use is the recommendation for primary legislation for increasing participation in smart data initiatives – allowing people to use their own data to get better deals from their internet, energy and pensions suppliers. Allowing people to draw on benefits from using their data is all well and good but it won’t achieve the transformational change needed here.  More transparency into algorithms is crucial but this will need to be done in an accessible way (and watch out for any findings of bias).

Knowing that there is an agency with the power to enforce strict data guidelines to protect personal information would go a much longer way to increasing public trust. Under Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, the ICO proactively laid a report in front of Parliament, fined Facebook the maximum amount and conducted an investigation into Cambridge Analytica. However, in recent months they have been criticised over not acting robustly enough. While protection and innovation are not necessarily at odds, the wording in the strategy seems to accept this dichotomy and promotes “pragmatic” regulators – more likely the ICO of late who relaxed enforcement during the pandemic. The ICO has shown that it has the ability to enforce strict guidelines, but it lacks teeth. It needs far more funding and powers from government to truly be up to the task at hand.

Releasing this strategy on the week Brexit talks have restarted, it makes a clear argument for the use of data outside of the EU. Stating the intent to “take advantage of being an independent, sovereign nation to maximise those strengths domestically, and position ourselves internationally to influence the global approach to data sharing and use.” One of the early key priorities will be to secure post-Brexit cross-border data flows. In light of the Schrems II decision, this is likely to be complex. Another complicating factor is the recent statements by an EU official calling for all European data to be stored locally.

Will this lead to real change?

While I’m less certain that digital identities will get off the ground (taking into account past failed government projects), the move to centralise control will help enable better government use of data. Not long ago, the remit over data was moved to the Cabinet Office. Cummings’s desire to act more like a tech company than slower and more careful civil servants may help him break down some of the silos that exist within government which make a holistic approach harder. The wrench in this is public trust.

For data to be really transformative, we need a good strategy and an equally strong regulator. Instead of what happened with data during the government’s failed track and trace system, the ICO needs to be a critical partner. This includes ensuring transparency, protection over personal data, and the ethical use of data. Instead of being a poorly funded afterthought, an ICO with the ability to hold even the government to account can ensure better outcomes for everyone.

Data is an opportunity, not something to be guarded against as Dowden said in a speech launching this strategy. After waiting so long to have a national data strategy, it’s crucial that we get this right.

Being in consultation, this isn’t a finished document and, despite the length, there is likely much missing. We all have a stake in how our data is used – experts, companies who could benefit from the opening up of government data, and us all as individuals who will have this impact how our data is used for the rest of our lifetimes. The survey is open until 2 December.