CXO

UK's first chief data officer to focus on making data a public asset

In this interview, the UK's first CDO, Mike Bracken, says he will be looking for ways to set standards and get more useful data flowing across siloed agencies to improve governance.

Mike Bracken, in the Government Digital Service offices in London, next to designs for GOV.UK.
Image: Alex Howard

While GOV.UK may provide a streamlined online platform for the British people to access government services, the business cards of the man in charge of it are getting mighty busy. This week, Mike Bracken was appointed the first ever chief data officer for the United Kingdom. Bracken, who has been the UK's executive director of digital in the Cabinet Office, and head of the Government Digital Service (GDS) since May 2011, was previously named the UK's first chief digital officer in October 2014.

"The UK government has never had a Chief Data Officer before," acknowledged Bracken, in a prepared statement from the UK Cabinet Office. "So why does it need one now? Because, despite all the great work that is going on to improve government's use of data, we've lacked the central coordination needed to really move the data agenda forward. Much of the work so far has been delivered as discrete projects, and we need to align our efforts so that we're as effective as possible in using public data for the benefit of citizens and businesses."

According to the Cabinet Office, Bracken will specifically focus on three goals:

  • "overseeing the definition and enforcement of a new Government Data Standard"
  • "championing open data, and opening up existing government data wherever possible"
  • "driving the use of data as a tool for making decisions in government"

I've been talking with Bracken about his views on government in the 21st century for years now, going back to the launch of GOV.UK. His thoughts on how to outfox a broken procurement system are really just the tip of the iceberg: it's fair to say that what the UK has achieved with its GDS team inspired the formation of the US Digital Service and 18F, the nation's in-house software development shop. Now, Bracken's advocacy for governments adopting a digital core will take on one of the key challenges that bedevil bureaucracies around the globe: making data accessible, interoperable, and useful to the people entrusted with governing.

"Now we've started making public services digital by default and moving towards Government as a Platform, the need for clear and consistently applied data standards is even more clear," said Bracken, in the statement. "Just as we talk about 'software as a public service', we should talk about 'data as a public asset'."

My interview with Bracken about his new portfolio as the UK's chief data officer follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why did the UK need a chief data officer (CDO)?

Mike Bracken: Data is a critical part of modern government. I did not get this job because anything we already do in this space was broken. We have recently been recognized as one of the most transparent governments, when it comes to open data. [See the Center for Data Innovation's report on open data in the G8. -Ed.] The Office of Policy OPG and Paul Maltby have done an outstanding job on DATA.GOV.UK.

There's another side, on performance and management, too. This platform is in my mind unique. We are by no means broken. As governments go we are in a good spot.

"Just as we talk about 'software as a public service', we should talk about 'data as a public asset'." Mike Bracken
What we are not is aligned in terms of our internal rules of the road. When I talk to some of the emergent class of CDOs, one of the things they say is that the first couple of years tend to pretty remedial: finding out where data is, what contracts govern it, how it can be used, what standards it's in, and getting it out of legacy IT systems.

We have a whole bunch of that. There's no difference between us and other large federated organizations. No one is in an optimal state. Many of our standards and contracts were not designed for the modern age.

We will be bringing data out to have a closer look at it with my colleagues. We accept we are not currently in a great state to be interoperable. We will be setting rules of the road for government for standards internally, and externally, so that users, suppliers, and the whole ecosystem can understand them. We have 24 departments and around 300 agencies. I'm pretty sure there isn't a single data standard across them.

I'm not not saying these things as criticisms. This is just the way governments are. You will see me complimenting departments and people, as things are going well. I will be introducing people to one another, across silos, and working with everyone across government to set data standards.

What about data standards? The adoption of ODF as the UK's official standard for sharing office documents and PDF or HTML for viewing them, for instance, was not free of controversy.

Mike Bracken: I chaired the ODF meeting and the board that set the standards. The day of the vote was challenging. Data standards as a forcing function can only work in conjunction with the technical skill necessary to understand and implement them. There is little sense in government setting standards and just hoping they'll be taken up. We have to embed the technocratic capacity necessary to implement them at the point of delivery.

We need to set our own standards. If we don't do this, it will be done to us with outcomes we can't think of at this moment. We are starting and maintaining an open dialog with the users of those standards and that data, inside and outside of government.

We fall for using attractive notions like "big data." I would like us to use small data, or just 'data', full stop.

Will every country have a national CDO in five years? Should they?

Mike Bracken: No. I think governments will face the same sets of requirements around data, but there should be no requirements for the role. The job title will be quite interim, like most C-suite jobs.

First a CIO, now a CDO. Do governments perhaps need a "Chief Wisdom Officer?"

Mike Bracken: I work with many people in their fifties and sixties. They're wise in the ways of government. We have exported governance around the world, but it has been rooted in the analog age, not rooted in the situational awareness of today. Data won't necessarily make people wise, but can change how wisdom in our system is used.

We are widely acknowledged to have great administrators. I suspect our system of public administration is not modern enough and informed enough, however, for them to show their wisdom.

We've lost touch with our users. That's why we've approached digital services as we have, with constant feedback. We have lost touch with technology. That's why we put in GDS. We have got to start rich data flows and make them two-way, because they are broken today. That's not because we don't have wise administrators: The systems are not configured for data.

"Data won't necessarily make people wise, but can change how wisdom in our system is used." Mike Bracken
In the absence of standards, we have allowed a growing number of competing registers of data. There are literally multiple lists of the same things. We haven't settled on canonical register of business data, for instance. Companies House has something perceived to be canonical, but no one uses it properly inside government—yet organizations like DueDil use it to transform the market for business services. We need to make decisions about what registers and data are canonical, and we need to work out some basics, like what an open address format should look like.

When we open up well-structured data sets to the market, great things happen, and yet many of our own departments use their own lists of businesses and data, not the Companies House one. It's a throwback to the siloed culture of government; it creates huge operational and financial waste, and it precludes us from developing our platform plays.

Those data standards, those that are meaningful, will allow data to flow. My department, Cabinet Office, is constantly causing irritation because we are always asking for data, but that's because data doesn't flow naturally. No one is doing something bad or wrong or stupid here: We have just grown up in analog age. This stuff is as much enabling and remedial as our work on services, probably more so.

Next week, look for my interview with the U.S. Department of Commerce's first chief data officer Ian Kalin and a feature that considers what the role of these executives should be in modern government.

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About Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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