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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.

While legal gateways exist to allow data sharing for the purposes of improving public service delivery, they lack transparency; citizens and even government bodies at all levels are often unaware of these routes 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. Most members of the public remain unaware of what data is shared about them, by which government organisations and for what purposes.

In their joint report, Data for Public Benefit: Balancing the risks and benefits of data sharing, Involve, Understanding Patient Data and the Carnegie UK Trust, unpack and explore the tensions between reaping  benefits from data sharing and the risks of sharing data.

The report is based on the findings from a series of six workshops in different local authority areas across England. The workshops brought together over 120 professionals from the public and voluntary sectors (working in the fields of housing, criminal justice, health, social care and welfare) to explore how they understand, define and value the public benefits which could be derived from the use of personal data.

Three clear tests emerged from our research for enabling public service providers to gain the social licence to share and use data more widely.  These are that data sharing should be:

  • Purposeful
  • Proportionate
  • Responsible

Further five key features that a data sharing initiative designed to deliver public benefits should be able to demonstrate were identified:

  1. That it enables high quality service delivery which produces better outcomes for people, enhancing their wellbeing.
  2. That it delivers positive outcomes for the wider public, not just individuals.
  3. That it uses data in ways that respect the individual, not just in the method of sharing but also in principle.
  4. That it represents, and supports, the effective use of public resources (money, time, staff) to enables the delivery of what people need/want from public services.
  5. That the benefits are tangible, recognised and valued by service providers and the wider public.

The report uses these principles to present a new framework which sets out questions for public service providers to use to assess whether these tests have been met.

The next stage of this work is to work with local authorities to test the framework with the public in order to develop a sustainable dialogue between local government and communities they service about when the sharing of data is acceptable and when it is not.

If you are interested in finding out more about this work, or in partnering with us, please contact

Photo credit: UncleBucko


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