The power of trust: overcoming barriers to data sharing

30 October 2017

Government is keen to get “data right”. This is a prudent objective. Used wisely, data can be an excellent facilitator of public service reform. The Government’s 2017 Transformation Strategy recognised, however, that change will not occur without trust. Confidence in the secure and responsible use of data is essential to creating an effective, data-driven government.

Public trust in how the government handles data remains low. The Royal Statistical Society has highlighted the existence of a ‘data trust deficit’ in society, meaning trust in institutions to use data appropriately is lower than trust in them in general. Figures published by Reform last week showed that, while trust in government is higher than private companies, just 9 per cent of people feel that the Government has their best interests at heart when data sharing, and only 15 percent are confident that government organisations would deal well with a cyber-attack.

Low confidence in data sharing can be aggravated by errors in practice. This summer, the partnership between Google’s DeepMind and the Royal Free caused upset as millions of personal data records were shared behind closed doors, without proper consent. At times, data sharing has resulted in serious security breaches. In March, a glitch in a clinical computer system led to fears that millions of records shared between GPs and local hospitals were accessible across the country. Meanwhile, public sector institutions struggle to showcase the many positive ways in which they could manage and utilise data for public good.

Overcoming the data trust deficit is critical to improving public services and pockets of best practice can be found around the country. In Surrey, for example, the sharing of patient data between health, social care, and emergency services has enhanced better service design and in turn better outcomes for people with mental health issues. In Newcastle, the matching of historic and current datasets from children’s social care, crime, education, employment, housing and homeless, mental health and youth offending, has helped to identify children most likely to become NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and support them at an early stage. Capitalising on the opportunities created by data sharing is essential.

Cultural barriers to data sharing are powerful, but are too often viewed as insurmountable. As shown by the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, increased communication between the public sector and citizens is a necessary first step to overcome some of these issues. One report on the adoption of integrated digital care records to facilitate data sharing cited communication with the public as a primary solution to the data trust deficit. In Hillingdon, for example, a leaflet was developed to help doctors talk to patients about data sharing plans, resulting in high levels of public participation in the data sharing projects.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), coming into force in May 2018, is focused on increasing confidence by giving individuals greater control over personal data and ensuring that data is managed more securely. In response, the Government should explore the potential of innovative technologies to share data safely, in compliance with new regulation. Cultural barriers to data sharing are powerful but overcoming them is paramount to improving public service delivery.

Sarah Timmis, Research Assistant, Reform

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