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Cabinet Office takes over control of UK government data: Mundane machinery or Machiavellian manoeuvrings?

Argh! Dominic Cummings' department! Everybody panic!

The UK Cabinet Office is to take control of government data from the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport.

In ordinary times this may be seen as unremarkable, but these are far from ordinary times.

A written statement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson under the heading "Machinery of Government", dated 22 July, reads: "Responsibility for government use of data has transferred from the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Cabinet Office.

"DCMS will retain responsibility for data policy for the economy and society. This change will help ensure that government data is used most effectively to drive policy making and service delivery. The change is effective immediately."

Suspicion around the change – notably from the likes of The Guardian's Cambridge Analytica journo Carole Cadwalladr – arises from the fact that the Cabinet Office is home to the PM's chief advisor, Dominic Cummings. Cummings was campaign director of Vote Leave in the UK's referendum on EU membership, and successfully employed data science during this time, with some critics questioning the methods.

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Cummings, of course, had no involvement in the Cambridge Analytica story, but his interest in data science continues, as does the government's. AI startup Faculty, which worked on Vote Leave, has been awarded at least seven government contracts worth almost £1m in the space of 18 months, reportedly.

Cabinet Office minister Theodore Agnew had resisted calls to sell a £90,000 shareholding in the company amid claims of a conflict of interest, the Guardian said.

Faculty has also been awarded contracts for the NHS COVID-19 data store project, as we reported on The Register in June.

Meanwhile, DCMS's tenure as champions of government data had not been going swimmingly. Its head of public sector data, Stephen Lorimer, was publicly forced to backtrack on whether the government was considering sharing health data between departments.

Although first denying the suggestions, evidence from the Public Service Delivery (PSD) Review Board discussion of the Digital Economy Act 2017 brought something of a clarification. Minutes from the board said: "A work programme… which would include recommendations for proactively supporting expansion and uptake of the powers… [which]… could include ideas for progressing the necessary work with NHSX [the NHS digital agency] and other stakeholders to bring health and adult social care bodies within the scope of the PSD and other Digital Economy Act powers".

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The backdrop of the discussion was that the government had been slow to get departments sharing data for the benefit of public services. Whether the Cabinet Office will be more effective in pursuing the mission, and whether that would be a good thing, are moot points.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "This is about making sure that Government departments and the decisions they make are properly joined-up."

In a statement, the Cabinet Office said: "It will allow the Government to make the best use of data to deliver the best possible services for the people of the UK. It will enable cross-Government work to be carried out, ensuring data is managed ethically while providing clear accountability through one central government department."

It is understood a small team of civil servants will transfer from DCMS to the Cabinet Office's Government Digital Service. ®

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