This evening I went to Policy Exchange’s launch of The Big Data Opportunity. The video will be online soon, and there were some useful ideas in the report and in the speeches and questions. But as so often, it brings us back to some very fundamental questions about what governments are for.
There are huge opportunities, as the report suggests, to coordinate between departments and deliver services in a way that suits – or even preempts – citizens’ behaviour. There are though some enormous caveats, particularly around privacy and the ethics of using our data, even anonymised, in this way.
There are also two massive problems. Firstly, that we have all this data is all very well, but the quality and consistency of that data is key. Secondly, how do we marry the data that the state has with the idea that the role of the state is to serve the individual (community, or person, or whatever) and not the state itself?
I don’t have answers to these questions, though I could suggest some ideas around better ways for us to own, hold and control our data, only releasing selected items in order to generate the services we require; in fact I’d posit that until we as individuals have that level of control, we cannot have the level of choice that will drive improvements in our public services.
Yet the paradox of the data opportunity is that without this volume and scope of mass data, the innovations and changes that will make choice worthwhile are unlikely to occur.
And that is really what this is about. Choice is what will ultimately drive innovation and improvement in public services. Indeed, until our public services fully recognise that they are there to serve the public (rather than to maintain the status quo or to preserve fiefdoms), and until and unless a government is willing to allow providers to fail (as I argued last week), we will not have a real choice or meaningful control over what the state does for us. But the key change that is required is in the institutional understanding of what the state is for. It’s a sensitive and difficult question, which the pre-election Conservatives were keen to explore; work is still going on but it’s more than an internal question for the government – it’s one that we must all be involved in.