MPs’ call for DCMS to be appointed Whitehall data-sharing auditor rejected by government

Written by Richard Johnstone on 24 February 2020 in News

Government responds to PAC report to insist that each department needs its own rules

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The government has rejected a call by MPs for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to audit all other ministries' data-sharing rules in an effort to improve how information is shared across government.

In the formal response to a Public Accounts Committee report examining the challenges in using data across Whitehall, the government insisted that each department needed to set its own data-sharing rules.

MPs said that DCMS “should review departments’ data-sharing guidance and standard operating processes; and report how well they support the wider use of data” because “government officials’ concerns about protecting data can stand in the way of using it to coordinate services”.

The committee's September report said officials were right to be concerned about data protection, since preservice public trust was a "precondition for government to use data more effectively”. However, the MPs warned that “departmental cultures can also discourage data sharing as civil servants are not used to working across departmental boundaries”.

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The report added: “Front line staff are afraid of making mistakes and do not always have the operational guidance they need to give them confidence and knowledge of when and how to share data appropriately.”

In its rejection of the recommendation, the latest Treasury minute said departments were each “responsible for complying with data protection law and developing the operating processes and guidance that they feel is required”.

But it said the government was “keen to promote more consistent practices” in cross-departmental data sharing.

“To this effect, DCMS is in the process of developing a framework for data processing by government departments as required under the Data Protection Act 2018,” the response said.

“The framework consultation process will review departments’ data sharing and operating processes and provide guidance around how to ensure government and public bodies’ personal data processing complies with the legal framework. The framework is intended to set out the principles and processes that the government must have regard to when processing personal data. It seeks to improve the transparency and clarity of existing government data processing."

DCMS is running a consultation on the framework with other government departments and the Information Commissioner's Office, which it expects to publish this year.

The rejection of the call for greater central oversight of data sharing comes despite the government acknowledging last year that “the lack of a mandate” for organisations to use GOV.UK Verify contributed to the identity service failing to meet its targets.

The government said it accepted all of PAC’s five remaining recommendations, including a call for the Cabinet Office and DCMS to check progress against their plans to improve government’s use of data and review the merits of mandating a consistent approach.

The response said there were “clear benefits to be gained from greater standardisation in government’s approach to data” and that the forthcoming National Data Strategy would give the government “implementation roadmap that translates the vision into impact”.

It also promised to identify and prioritise the top 10 data standards that would benefit government, as recommended by PAC, and to update the committee on its funding by April.

And it said the Cabinet Office and DCMS would “identify the main ageing IT systems that, if fixed, would allow government to use data better”.

“There is work ongoing to understand and address the issues with legacy IT in government,” the response said.

The government will write to the committee by spring with an update.


About the author

Richard Johnstone is deputy and online editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @CSW_DepEd.

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