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How the Data Science Campus is driving up data literacy in Whitehall

During the pandemic, data has underpinned policies that have placed unprecedented restrictions on our everyday lives. Naturally, this has brought a greater degree of public scrutiny to the application of data in government decision making. To that end, the Data Science Campus has been running a “data masterclass for senior leaders” course since late 2020 - with the aim of driving up data literacy in Whitehall.
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In a statement published in late 2020, the OSR argued that while government communications had “rightly drawn of data and analysis to support decisions being announced,” these hadn’t been “consistently supported by transparent information being provided in a timely manner.” The government knows that data-driven insights could help with everything from procurement to parliament and public service delivery. It also knows that when it comes to data literacy in Whitehall, there’s some room for improvement.

“During the pandemic, there was huge pressure on the public sector and the government to understand what was happening in real time,” said Tom Smith, managing director of the Data Science Campus. “Most of us wouldn’t have expected to see the Prime Minister standing in front of statistics and charts on a day-to-day basis before the crisis, and that really hammered home the importance of building capability in that space.”

Smith and the Data Science Campus (DSC) had been undertaking work in this area long before news of a mysterious virus had begun spreading out of Wuhan. The campus was established in 2017 with the aim of building data science capability within the Office for National Statistics and enabling the greater use of data to understand society, the economy and the environment. Smith said: “Our starting goal was to strengthen ONS capability, and from there we looked at building cross-government capability in data science, while strengthening joint project capability between government departments.”

DSC initiatives include the Let’s Count campaign, in which it worked with schools to promote the national census. In 2019, the campus launched a collaboration with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to apply data science techniques to international development efforts.

During the pandemic, data has underpinned policies that have placed unprecedented restrictions on our everyday lives. Naturally, this has brought a greater degree of public scrutiny to the application of data in government decision making. “Everybody was getting this beamed into their houses at 5pm, daily,” said Smith. “Evidence-based discussion was really brought to the forefront of public discourse.” With increased scrutiny comes a greater need to build trust in the competence of the leaders making those evidence-based decisions.

To that end, DSC has been running a “data masterclass for senior leaders” course since late 2020. Created in collaboration with 10ds, its syllabus includes keynote speeches from the UK’s national statistician Sir Ian Diamond, UCL mathematics professor Dr Hannah Fry and tech author Azeem Azhar. “ONS offers support, but each department runs their own cohorts,” said Smith. “This allows for the discussion to be based around specific department needs, based on specific examples to improve literacy and strengthen skills.”

Over 150 senior leaders across 14 government departments have participated in the programme so far. But this isn’t to say that these groups were inherently data illiterate prior to the pandemic. Indeed, many senior government figures worked as economists or analysts before moving into public office. Smith said: “There’s already quite a good level of literacy at senior level – what we really want to do is make sure that data literacy is there right across the piece.”

Doing so will require taking stock of data standards. Government has often been criticised for bad practice in its collection, storage and processing of data. Whitehall is infamous for legacy IT, siloed data sets and poor collaboration between departments. The recent establishment of the Data Standards Authority and the ONS-led Data Quality Hub will go some way to assuage these concerns, but their success will be limited without clear leadership.

What does data literacy look like when it comes to senior figures in Whitehall? For Smith, leaders should at the very least be confident in their ability to tell stories with data. “Our goal is to have leadership right through the Civil Service and public sector that are confident in their ability in and understanding of data-enabled, data-driven approaches,” he said. “Data visualisation and analysis is just one part of the arsenal, it needs to be backed up by the confidence to communicate findings, and there are some great examples of that happening already.”

The data literacy bar has been raised, and there is an expectation that this will remain the case long after the pandemic subsides. “I think the appetite for this kind of thing is here to stay,” said Smith. “There’s a high-level of interest in areas like the environment, and the public want to see the evidence driving policy making, particularly when – as we saw with lockdown – they’re being asked to change their behaviour.”

The National Data Strategy, published in September 2020, contains specific aims to harness the power of data to “revolutionise the public sector.” Thanks to the efforts of the Data Science Campus, that might be one promise this Government manages to stick to.

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