As we explained in this 2015 blog for the Government Digital Service (GDS), PCAG was set up to:
provide the UK government with independent expert review, analysis, guidance and feedback on all personal data and privacy initiatives by all departments, agencies and other public sector bodies
Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office (MCO), helped encourage and establish the group nearly 6 years ago. He wanted the group to be a sort of “critical friend” – a canary that could detect and help fix policy and technology issues before they got too far down the policy / Bill process. The idea was to try to avoid a repeat of previous fiascos, such as the Identity Card Act, where Whitehall generalists found themselves notably out of their depth on complex technical issues and left Ministers to pick up the pieces.
PCAG brings together a healthy mix of expertise from a diverse range of people and organisations, including some of those who were most vocal in criticising the ID Card proposals. Setting up PCAG was a brave political move in many ways, but always seemed to me a sensible way of government realising the old adage of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.
The group has reviewed and commented upon a wide range of government initiatives, including predicting the disaster that become NHS care.data, the fraud risks of ill-considered “data-sharing” (under various guises), the troubled and late-running GOV.UK Verify identity assurance programme, the Office of National Statistics use of data, the “digital transformation” of the electoral roll, Home Office fraud issues, the Investigatory Powers Bill (now Act), and other proposals and ideas from across government.
Unfortunately, since Francis Maude’s departure, there has been only one meeting with subsequent MCOs, in December 2015. PCAG has experienced less Ministerial level support and encouragement than it once had. Without such backing, those officials who find the group’s expert reviews and analyses “challenging” have found it easier to ignore, attempting instead to smuggle their often half-baked proposals past Ministers without the benefit of the group’s independent assistance.
Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill seems to me a classic example of what happens when the group’s advice and offers of help are repeatedly ignored by officials who should know better. Worse, in the case of Part 5 the group was repeatedly misled and misinformed by the team that drafted the core of the proposals and the related “codes of practice”. Once again it was Ministers and Parliament left to deal with the consequences.
In Francis Maude’s day, the problems with Part 5 (PDF) of the Digital Economy Bill and its associated codes of practice would have been highlighted and fixed with the help of the group, rather than causing Ministerial embarrassment and confusion when they were published in a disappointingly amateurish and technically-illiterate state.
PCAG has worked hard to ensure the continued full engagement, backing and enthusiasm of subsequent MCOs. Alongside extending open invites to the MCO’s office via GDS, we sent this letter in June 2016 to then MCO Matt Hancock MP. We followed-up with this letter to the next MCO, Ben Gummer MP, in September 2016. Despite repeated attempts by GDS to chase a response from the MCO’s office, there has been no acknowledgement or response to either letter.
I can only assume from this lack of engagement that PCAG’s canary function is either no longer understood, or no longer valued. If the group is no longer wanted – well, surely it would be much better all round if someone just said so openly?
As I step down, I’d like to thank the many civil servants, Ministers and MPs who have engaged constructively with the group and its members over the years, and who have found it of value – even if it may have proved challenging and perhaps a little heated at times. No-one ever claimed any of this is easy – the intersection of technology and policy is notoriously complex – but it’s surely far better for everyone to have the right discussions early in the policy-making process rather than downstream.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the members, both past and current, of PCAG who have always been supportive and keen to make it work, and who have given so freely of their time despite many other demands.
Let’s just hope that after the election the value of the group will be rediscovered and government will breathe life back into the canary. Doing so would help realise Francis Maude’s original purpose – and bring significant benefits to us all, whether inside or outside of government.