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CDEI calls for ‘step change’ in public sector data sharing

Public sector needs to change the way data is shared, clarify governance arrangements and work on building public trust and awareness, according to a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation report

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) has called on the government and the rest of public sector to address public trust and awareness around data sharing.

A report on public trust and data sharing by the CDEI said that barriers to data sharing are often “reinforced by a lack of public trust and an absence of a developed understanding of public acceptability”, and that the benefits of data sharing are not felt equally among the public.

“Indeed some people believe that the government prioritises using data to increase efficiency and fulfil its own objectives, rather than for the explicit and direct benefit to individual citizens,” the report said.

It added that while issues such as technical, legal and cultural aspects are important, “there is arguably a wider issue at stake”.

“Whereas we have a well-developed understanding of the social contract between the citizen and the state in relation to taxation and public spending, the same is not true of data,” it said.

“Given that data is perhaps as important to the functioning of the state as money, and its significance is increasing, we argue it is time to consider a clear social contract between the citizen and state over how data is shared and used.”

Data sharing is vital to the development and testing and use of new technologies and initiatives. It is also vital to the running of public services; however the report said that both central government and public sector has put forth limited effort to address public trust, despite doing a lot of work around addressing legal and technical barriers to data sharing.

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According to the report, survey results show that between 40-60% of people believe that the government’s use of data is not serving their interests.

“Such uncertainty may mean that potentially valuable projects do not proceed, as the ‘rules of the game’ are unclear. In other cases, data is shared, but with little public awareness,” the report said.

“This risks damaging trust further if such uses of data become widely publicised, particularly given evidence that there is deep-seated public distrust of governmental data-use.”

Public trust in data sharing has been fraught, and not helped by initiatives such as the NHS Care.data scandal, which caused a public uproar. However, despite this, public trust in NHS data sharing appears “to be high relative to other parts of the public sector,” the report said. It added that the NHS is one of the richest data sources in the UK, and holds data which can have a huge impact on future healthcare services such as precision medicine and genomics.

“There are ongoing efforts by the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to address trust while also seeking to support socially valuable innovation,” the report said.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is currently working on developing a national data strategy, which is due to be published some time in 2020. The strategy aims to find how policy can improve access to data, efficiency and build trust across the public sector.

Step-change needed

Roger Taylor, chair of the CDEI, said that we need “a step-change in the way that data is shared and used in the public sector”.

A lack of public awareness of data sharing and an absence of a developed understanding of public acceptability will hinder the progression of valuable projects if left unaddressed. We need to clarify the rules of the game and put clear governance mechanisms in place if we are to maximise the value of data held,” he said.

“This certainty will enable the UK to unlock data-driven growth, which the government has signalled will be the core objective of the forthcoming national data strategy.”  

The report also points out that while there are legal frameworks in place which sets out how and when to share data, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), there is still “a large amount of legal confusion on the part of public sector bodies wishing to share data which can cause them to start from scratch when determining legality and commit significant resources to legal advice”.

“It is not unusual for the development of data sharing agreements to delay the projects for which the data is intended,” the report said, adding that cultural and organisational barriers to data sharing remain within departments and agencies.

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