The Government has published the UK’s National Data Strategy for consultation, building on its manifesto pledge to improve data use in government, and looking at ways to help businesses of all sizes benefit from the ‘data revolution’. It forms part of the Government’s wider vision for a “thriving, fast-growing digital sector in the UK, underpinned by public trust’.

These ambitious goals are in part based on leveraging existing UK strengths. The UK is already a leading digital nation with:

- the largest data market in the EU (i.e. money made from products and services derived from digitised data);

- a growing tech sector, securing 33% of European tech investment. It now only sits behind the US and China in terms of venture capital investment; and

- a reputation for pragmatic regulation.

However, there is a great deal of competition in the data space internationally, and other nations are investing heavily in their data and tech sectors. There is also evidence of barriers to efficient data use in the UK that the strategy aims to overcome.

The strategy 

The strategy builds on initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy and AI Sector, and will form part of the Government’s digital strategy which is due to be published later this Autumn. It identifies a number of:

- opportunities for data use to positively transform the UK, such as boosting productivity and trade and increasing the speed, efficiency and scope of scientific research;

- interconnected issues which currently prevent the UK from taking full advantage of the opportunities data offers. These are identified in the strategy as ‘the four pillars’ and cover issues such as skills shortages and ensuring data is appropriately accessible, mobile and re-usable; and

- priority areas of action, or missions, to address these key issues/challenges (the five missions).

The five missions

As with the rest of the strategy, the missions currently under consultation are ambitious and wide-ranging. They are:

1. Unlocking the value of data across the economy. The UK needs to set the correct conditions to make data usable, accessible and available across the economy, while protecting people’s data rights and private enterprises’ intellectual property. The Government is planning to develop a clear policy framework to determine what government interventions are needed to achieve this.

2. Securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime. For the ‘data revolution’ to benefit businesses of all sizes, regulation must not be too burdensome for the average company. However, trust is also vital to secure growth. UK regulation must therefore maintain high data protection standards without creating unnecessary barriers to data use. The Government makes a point of stating that the UK will control its own data protection laws after the end of the Brexit transition period and wants them to ‘remain fit for purpose amid rapid technological change’ but still confirms that it is seeking EU data adequacy to maintain the free flow of EEA data. The consultation notes that there is also a role for other bodies in this area, such as the CDEI, and discusses its role and statutory status.

3. Transforming the Government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services. There is massive untapped potential in the way government and public services use and share data to help and protect people (as demonstrated by the recent pandemic). A Government Chief Data Officer is needed to lead a whole-government approach that ensures alignment around best practice. The UK will also need an appropriately safeguarded, joined-up and interoperable data infrastructure and the right skills and leadership within the public sector to understand and unlock the potential of data. This will be a big package of work for the Government, requiring change in areas such as data standards/assurance (which may ultimately benefit wider business) and accountability.

4. Ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies. Data infrastructure is a vital national asset that needs to be protected from security risks and other concerns. This includes increasing the UK’s cyber resilience.

5. Championing the international flow of data. The strategy recognises that international transfers of data fuel global business operations, supply chains and trade, while also playing a wider societal role. It states that ‘having left the European Union, the UK will champion the benefits that data can deliver. We will promote domestic best practice and work with international partners to ensure data is not inappropriately constrained by national borders and fragmented regulatory regimes so that it can be used to its full potential.’

What next?

The consultation closes on 2 December 2020 and the Government will respond following this date. In the meantime we await publication of the digital strategy later this Autumn. According to press reports, is likely to adopt a similar rhetoric of proportionate regulation which provides certainty while encouraging innovation. This is a stance which will undoubtedly be welcomed by business, although in practice it can be a difficult balance to strike.