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Successful transition to digital gov't requires ministers to carry Parliament and public with them

4 min read

Parliament should push for the widest possible involvement of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations as plans move forward on a national data strategy, writes Lord Wallace.

Last December’s Conservative manifesto promised that ‘We will improve the use of data, data science and evidence in the process of government.’ 

Experts in the field of data analysis will welcome this promise, but will want to learn more about what ministers, advisers and officials intend.

The wider public, inherently suspicious of government sharing personal data across different departments and agencies, let alone providing access for private sector companies to exploit, may take a different view when they first hear what No.10 plans. 

Dominic Cummings’s almost manic enthusiasm for data science, artificial intelligence and scientific prediction suggests that he wants Whitehall to plunge head first into exploitation of mass public data on everything from health to criminal behaviour, facial recognition and universal benefits. The recruitment of one of the Vote Leave campaign’s data miners to No. 10 does not provide much confidence that those involved will pay due regard to issues of privacy, inherent bias, and inaccurate data.

Boris Johnson’s government has praiseworthy aims to press forward with the digital revolution, as part of an industrial strategy to exploit technological innovation as fully as possible. 

Whitehall struggled to adapt to computerised administration under the last Labour government, held back by incompatible systems, expensive long-term contracts with outside suppliers, and outdated legislative constraints on data management. The creation of the Government Digital Service in 2011 sparked a more determined drive to transform Whitehall; but that ran out of steam in 2014-15, with resistance from departments to central direction leading to the resignation of leading GDS personnel. Francis Maude’s retirement in 2015 left the programme without a political champion. Since then, a Commons Report on Digital Government concluded in 2019, ‘political leadership in digitisation has been lacking.’

There are potentially major benefits in moving towards digital government. But there are also risks and potential dangers. 

At one end the UK might move, as the Commons Report hopes, to ‘a transformation of the relationship between the citizen and the state’, with easier citizen access to the data government holds about them, faster service provision, and substantial financial savings. 

At the other end lies the threat of a surveillance state, consolidating personal details on everyone’s lifestyles, behaviour, tax and benefits without allowing citizens to check the accuracy of what the government holds on them. 

A digitisation programme driven by the people who worked with Cambridge Analytica on the Vote Leave campaign is unlikely to gain widespread public trust.

Successful transition to digital government will require ministers to carry Parliament and public with them. 

We are promised a national data strategy by the end of this year, and a semi-independent Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has already been set up. But No. 10’s impatience with what Johnson’s sees as parliamentary obstruction and interference suggests that it may prefer secrecy to open debate on the way forward. Parliament should therefore push for the widest possible involvement of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations as plans move forward.  

The Windrush scandal provides us with one example of how a creative approach to the sharing of public data would help our citizens. The Home Office could have checked with HMRC and the Departments of Health and Work and Pensions for records of these long-term immigrants resident in Britain over the years, which would have confirmed their rights to stay. It didn’t because it did not seek to confirm that, as well as because there were obstacles to accessing such data. 

A well-designed transition to digital government should allow citizens to access such data to confirm their rights, as well as to allow government to check on citizens’ status and to use public data, under clearly-established rules, to improve the quality of policy and the delivery of services.


Lord Wallace is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.


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Read the most recent article written by Lord Wallace - Running repairs: How can we restore trust in our institutions?


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