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Public trust key to ‘data-driven government’, says John Manzoni

The civil service chief says the public needs to be confident in data sharing safeguards and admits scandal was a step back in gaining trust

Big data has the potential to both improve public services and boost the economy, but it must be used right, says civil service chief John Manzoni.

Speaking at think tank Reform’s conference on big data, Manzoni said  “data is at the heart of 21st century government” and that Whitehall and the wider public sector need to “use it properly”.

“The impact of data analytics and big data in our lives – for example, the way online retailers tailor their recommendations for the food, books and music we buy – is quite familiar,” he said. 

“Less has been said about the transformative power of this technology for the delivery of high-quality public services and it’s time that changed. With the evidence of data we can spend less time developing policy and services that don’t work, and instead focus on continuously improving those that do.” 

Manzoni highlighted both the government’s delayed transformation strategy, which was published earlier in February 2017, and the Digital Economy Bill act as drivers to achieve the vision of utilising the potential of big data.

The Digital Economy Bill, he said, is designed to “give confidence that the government is doing the right thing”.

“The bill provides a robust legal framework for sharing data between public authorities, where there is a clear public need and benefit,” he added. 

The bill’s data sharing principles has, however, been cause for concern among the House of Lords and data sharing experts. 

The aim of the bill is to make the UK “a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government”, and one of its key commitments focuses on the sharing of publicly held datasets “to improve service delivery while maintaining safeguards on privacy”.  

However, a House of Lords Delegated Powers Committee report from January 2017 said one of the bill’s clauses on data sharing gave ministers “almost untrammeled powers”, allowing them to “prescribe extensive lists of public authorities as ‘specified persons’, either by name or description”. 

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In November 2016, a group of 26 businesses, professional bodies, academics and privacy groups, also highlighted the need for a change in the safeguards around data sharing.

They wrote to the government asking it to expand the details about data-sharing provisions in the legislation and argued that the government must strengthen, not weaken, the protection of sensitive information.

“The government should be an exemplar in ensuring the security and protection of citizens’ personal data,” they wrote. “If the necessary technical and legal safeguards cannot be embedded in the current bill and codes of practice, we respectfully urge the government to remove its personal data-sharing proposals in their entirety.”

Sharing of healthcare data

Manzoni also pointed out that having the right data and information on citizens can make them live “better, more securely, more healthily and more prosperously”.

He highlighted a project run by Google DeepMind and Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust where the hospital will share a data set of one million anonymised digital eye scans with Deepmind.

The company will then use machine-learning technology to detect and learn patterns from the data in the aim of being able to quickly diagnose a condition.  

The sharing of health data, which has, as Manzoni pointed out, a chequered history, is not part of the Digital Economy Bill. One of the reasons for this was the failed project and the national data guardian for health and care Fiona Caldicott’s report on patient data sharing in the NHS.

The programme, which aimed to extract anonymised patient data from GPs to a central database held by the then Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), has been controversial since it first began. In July 2016, the government pulled the plug on the project after being asked to do so by Caldicott.

Manzoni admitted that had been “quite frankly a sort of misstep” and it “put us back a long way”.

Caldicott’s report, which includes options for consent and opt outs around the sharing of personal health data, is now out for consultation.

“One of the reasons the health sector was kept out of the Digital Economy Bill was precisely because Fiona Caldicott had written a report and we needed to consult with that,” Manzoni said.

He also highlighted that the government is beginning to see a “cultural shift in the status of data”, and that the will to get it right is there.

“When we get it right, we will deliver the right service at the right time to the right person. That is our goal,” he said. ... ... ... ... ... ...

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