Talk of strategy brings us to the heart of what Nelson’s and Maxwell’s appointments may be about, and at a time when the government’s uses of, and attitudes to, data are firmly in the spotlight.
Open data strategy
Recently, the government’s Open Data policy took a major step forward with the formal announcement of (and funding for) the Open Data Institute (ODI), which looks to exploit the commercial potential of open datasets, while working towards sustainable policy.
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has also spoken of the need to create a dynamic data-sharing culture at the heart of government and within areas such as the NHS. This policy trend was reinforced by the publication in May of the NHS information strategy, which talked of local innovation among a mix of public and private suppliers to find new ways of sharing data.
In other areas, however, the government has been accused of rather less transparency than it claims for itself, such as Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s use of the veto to prevent publication of the NHS Transition Risk Register. This led Information Commissioner Christopher Graham to urge the government – in a strongly worded statement – to clarify the Freedom of Information Act in terms of the circumstances in which information can be suppressed.
As CIO, information policy and the technology to support it must, at the very least, inform Nelson’s role – a role made doubly interesting by his Justice focus and experience.
“Inevitably in government you will have some genuine debates about what data is kept private and what is kept open,” he told Computing.
“In my world – the criminal justice system – you ask ‘what sort of data do you make open?’ You can lay open general data around cases and crime statistics, but how hard do you go down on individual data? There have to be lines drawn in some cases.”
“Some cases”, of course, is the question: what are those cases? In other words, where does open data end and private data begin? From an ICT strategy perspective, Nelson said that the government intends to be transparent, but each category needs to be analysed to determine how much information within it can be shared.
“In our One Year On report, of the first set of metrics I ask, is the data as complete as I would like? No. Is the data as clean as I would like? No. But we didn’t shy away from publishing it.
“To have absolute intent to be transparent and open, you have to recognise that there are elements of data, and areas of it, where it is not the right thing to do and I’m sure the public would agree. If you ask citizens to what degree they would share their private data, [they would say] only a summary of information,” he said.
Nelson was insistent that his role as government CIO does not have to be full-time, as issues around open data and the government’s so-called “snooping” plans do not, he said, fall within his remit.
“If you are thinking about the data agenda, things like transparency, then there are other people in other teams that are working in that space.
“What myself, government departments and CIOs have to do to support government is find out how we technically provide data. And in terms of sharing data I need to be looking at the ICT space and not the broader remit. Government decides the stance to take from this data,” he said.
Nelson underlined two of the main challenges for government in implementing its ICT strategy.
“The first is to try to align the digital strategy, transparency agenda and civil service reform to ensure that we’ve got an integrated strategy. The digital agenda is crucial, as departments come up with their digital strategies by the autumn. The CIO Delivery Board are doing some work to ensure that it looks at that in terms of any implications for the ICT strategy.
“The second challenge is a cultural one, for the government departments to work together. I’m encouraged by our Delivery Board people working together as a group, and this is one of the reasons we’ve had some success in the past year,” he said.
• Additional reporting Chris Middleton