What is the public benefit of sharing personal data?

Different government departments and organisations, at both national and local level, have always shared personal data about citizens. Data sharing of this kind can be for a wide variety of reasons, for example to ensure that patients get the best care as they transfer between their GP and hospital, to deliver more effective services, to identify fraud in the tax system or to allow social services to intervene quickly in child protection cases. However, the collection and use of personal data by the state raises understandable and legitimate concerns about privacy, data security and intrusive government surveillance.

Over the past decade or so, the state’s ability to collect data and match it against publicly available data has increased markedly. This places greater emphasis on old concerns about individual privacy and data security, for example. As a result of these concerns, there can be strong opposition to attempts by government to share citizen data. At a national level, each time the government has brought legislation to parliament to create a more flexible framework for sharing data it has been rejected by MPs because they do not feel  these concerns have been fully addressed. Similar attempts to develop frameworks and processes at local level also regularly run into opposition and often fail.

This failure to develop national and local data sharing frameworks has meant that thousands of individual data ‘gateways’ have been created to share personal data with the aim of making services more effective and efficient.

While these gateways provide a legal route for such data sharing, they lack transparency; citizens and even government bodies at all levels are often unaware that they exist and there continue to be significant procedural and cultural barriers to legal data sharing. Significant amongst these are concerns about ensuring the best balance between delivering public benefit with maintaining individual privacy.

We are therefore delighted to announce a major new partnership between the Carnegie UK Trust, Understanding Patient Data and Involve. We will be working together in partnership with six local authority areas to build a better understanding of how different groups (government, civil society and advocacy groups) make sense of, and balance, the trade-offs inherent in data sharing, specifically between public and individual benefit, and privacy and security.

This project builds on recent work by Involve, the Carnegie UK Trust and Understanding Patient Data. Specifically, our work with the Cabinet Office on the better Better Use of Data open policy process, Carnegie on the Fife Fairness Commission, and Understanding Patient Data to develop a common language for talking about data sharing.

The first of these was a two-year open policy making process to try to make progress in data sharing in three areas of proposed government legislation: fraud and error; targeted public services; and research and statistics. This was coordinated by Involve on behalf of the Cabinet Office. The Digital Economy Bill contains the provisions to turn these proposals into law.

An important strand of the discussions during this process was around how best to achieve the balance highlighted above. While significant progress was made, the discussion involved a small number of civil society organisations and focused around three relatively narrow areas of public policy. In addition, although the Bill will provide for some data sharing between government departments, it will not, by itself resolve the complex set of trade-offs between public benefit, privacy and security.

If you are interested in finding out more about this work, or in partnering with us, please contact simon@involve.org.uk.

Photo credit: UncleBucko


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