Background to the report

Data is crucial to the way government delivers services for citizens, improves its own systems and processes, and makes decisions. Our work has repeatedly highlighted the importance of evidence-based decision-making at all levels of government activity, and the problems that arise when data is inadequate.

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Government recognises the value of using data more effectively, and the importance of ensuring security and public trust in how it is used. It plans to produce a new national data strategy in 2020 to position “the UK as a global leader on data, working collaboratively and openly across government”.

To achieve its ambitions government will need to resolve fundamental challenges around how to use and share data safely and appropriately, and how to balance competing demands on public resources in a way that allows for sustained but proportionate investment in data. The future national data strategy provides the government with an opportunity to do this, building on the renewed interest and focus on the use of data within government and beyond.

Content and scope of the report

This report sets out the National Audit Office’s experience of data across government, including initial efforts to start to address the issues. From our past work we have identified three areas where government needs to establish the pre-conditions for success: clear strategy and leadership; a coherent infrastructure for managing data; and broader enablers to safeguard and support the better use of data. In this report we consider:

  • the current data landscape across government (Part One);
  • how government needs a clear plan and leadership to improve its use of data (Part Two);
  • the quality, standards and systems needed to use data effectively (Part Three); and
  • wider conditions and enablers for success (Part Four).

Concluding remarks

Past examples such as Windrush and Carer’s Allowance show how important good‑quality data is, and the consequences if not used well. Without accurate, timely and proportionate data, government will not be able get the best use out of public money or take the next step towards more sophisticated approaches to using data that can reap real rewards.

But despite years of effort and many well-documented failures, government has lacked clear and sustained strategic leadership on data. This has led to departments under-prioritising their own efforts to manage and improve data. There are some early signs that the situation is improving, but unless government uses the data strategy to push a sea change in strategy and leadership, it will not get the right processes, systems and conditions in place to succeed, and this strategy will be yet another missed opportunity.


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“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.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO