We have huge potential for improving people's lives with data in Scotland: world leading datasets and academic power informatics. We have a good reputation for safe and fair use of public data. Having public engagement in decision making is key in maintaining trust, enabling the value from data to be realised: saving time, money and lives.”  

Roger Halliday, Chief Statistician & Data Officer, Scottish Government 

This blog post looks back over the past 12 months of our work on data sharing by local service providers. It announces the next phase of our work which aims to pilot methodologies for engaging the public and invites local service providers to join us in this initiative.  

Last year we published a major report, based on work in six local authorities, which looked at the issue of data sharing between providers of public services. In Data for Public Benefit, Balancing the risks and benefits of data sharing, we presented a framework to support service providers to assess the acceptability of proposals to share citizens’ personal data with other providers.  

We are now publishing a new report, Involving the public in robust and trustworthy data sharing, which is the culmination of the next phase of the work. This report explores how to bring the public into the heart of decision-making about what data public service providers collect, analyse and share as they develop more effective and efficient public services. This report draws on a full day workshop with officials working with data at different levels of government.  

Our partners, Carnegie UK Trust, have written a companion blog post exploring the workshop’s findings that taking the approach we advocate will make data sharing proposals more robust and trustworthy. In this short post, I want to explore the questions the workshop addressed about how to engage the public in this complex and potentially controversial area of public policy.  

As the quote at the top of this post suggests, public engagement is a critical element of any work that public service providers are doing to share data. Public engagement will help to make data sharing more trustworthy. It will also ensure that these projects are delivering the services the public needs, that support them to live the lives they want to lead whilst saving public service providers both time and, critically, money.  

The question is not whether the public should be engaged in decisions about the concept of sharing data between providers or not, but how they should be engaged.  

It is important as it ultimately affects them. It's most important.”  

Kwesi Afful, Digital Citizen & Innovation Lead, North West London Collaboration of Clinical Commissioning Groups 

Participants at the workshop explored three different public engagement methodologies, Citizens’ Juries, Citizens’ Panels and Distributed Dialogues, in order to develop a shared sense of the key features of sustainable engagement with policy decisions on data sharing.  

The key features of any engagement methodology that is adopted will have to take account of: 

  • Cost – budgets for all public service providers continue to shrink; the engagement method will have to be affordable and be able to demonstrate that it will ultimately save money;  

  • Scale – the data that public service providers hold affects every member of the public; the engagement method must demonstrate that it has reached sufficient people if it is to convince policy-makers that the findings are a robust evidence base on which to make decisions; 

  • Diversity – public services are delivered to a diverse range of communities with multiple different needs and perspectives; the engagement method will have to demonstrate that this diversity of perspective and experience is represented;  

  • Nuanced views – the tensions and trade-offs inherent in making a decision about whether or not to proceed with specific data sharing proposals are complex and often far from being black and white; the engagement method must provide the public with the time required to explore this detail rather than just providing immediate, uninformed perspectives; 

Overall, there was support for a more structured engagement method as some identified that this provided greater sense of control, helped build legitimacy for the process and allowed for combining useful elements of different methods to answer specific questions.  

The next steps for Involve are to develop pilot engagement processes with a number of service providers in different local areas, The aim is to test the most effective ways to engage the public with the purpose of developing data sharing projects which are more trustworthy and deliver more effective and efficient public services. If you would like to find out more, and explore the potential to take part in this piloting, please contact simon@involve.org.uk