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Critical success factors for government data sharing

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / whiteMocca)

The UK government is increasingly turning to its data assets to drive policy-making and public services; like many technology trends, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a development already in play. As the UK continues to grapple with the virus and its impact, the supply of data to the executive is providing ongoing guidance but also a means of retrospective evaluation on the government’s early handling of the pandemic.

NTT DATA UK’s research has highlighted overwhelming support for data usage across all areas of the government. More than half of British civil servants surveyed (63 percent) believe that data has an “absolutely essential” role in transforming public services. The survey came a month after the government unveiled an ambitious National Data Strategy that sets out how the UK will become “a world-leading data economy” and improve the public’s acceptance of data collection over the coming years.

While it’s excellent to see the UK government embracing and promoting data usage, there are significant obstacles it must overcome if data projects are to be successful. From addressing ethical issues to upholding data quality and standards, I’ll explore some of the key pillars for successful data sharing in this article.

Leadership and culture are essential 

Support for the use of data across the government is at a record high among civil servants and continues to grow. But to ensure government data projects succeed, leadership and cultural changes are necessary.

Data-driven decision-making offers multiple benefits, particularly where datasets can be joined across government, but there is a natural risk aversion around sharing data.

Ultimately, change must come from the top – government leaders should advocate for the power of data in the public sector and contribute towards the right priorities for new data projects. A champions’ network is one way to achieve this culture change, and it’s certainly encouraging that Prime Minister seems to be a supporter of this idea. Going forwards, it’s vital that government leaders continue to demonstrate their support for such projects and initiatives that promote better data sharing and help cultivate a strong data culture. 

Upholding data quality and standards 

With greater reliance on the data, the quality of that data and the standards that support interoperability become more important. However, NTT DATA UK’s research found that both these areas need improvement.

While the government has created and implemented data standards in recent times, the sheer number of competing standards can cause confusion among civil servants and the public. According to the National Audit Office, there are over 20 methods for finding and linking citizens in use across different government departments. These varying approaches are perplexing civil servants across all areas of the government and are ultimately affecting front-line services. 

Fortunately, the Data Standards Authority is taking steps to fix this issue. It is only through the creation and implementation of common standards that existing data assets can be properly leveraged.

Poor data quality is another major issue within government and has contributed to high-profile scandals like Windrush. This often comes down to secondary purposes for data being poorly conceived or ignored during the data collection stage. Retrospectively solving the challenge of data quality begins by measuring the problem and then setting about finding and addressing root causes in a prioritized way.

Earning public trust and promoting data literacy 

The government is progressively collecting and analyzing more data in order to make key decisions that affect us all. Understandably, many individuals are concerned about how their data will be used and with what intentions.

A lack of public trust can seriously limit data projects being carried out by the government. Consequently, the government needs to be transparent about the type of data it collects from citizens, how this is done and the reasons behind public data projects. By making existing data-sharing agreements widely available (including those that have been rejected), public trust in government data projects will increase. 

Data literacy must also be improved, and this doesn’t simply mean training for data specialists. Many job roles in government will require the ability to understand and interpret data. Without this, data projects are more likely to fail to achieve their full potential. There has been a positive response to the Data Masterclasses for Senior Civil Servants, which the ONS Data Science Campus began running at the start of the year. This needs to feed into more widespread data proficiency training to ensure the necessary skills are present across broader swathes of the government and Civil Service.

Addressing ethical concerns

Finally, issues around principles and ethics need to be identified and addressed when enforcing new data policies. One prevalent ethical problem arises when personal datasets are linked, but individuals aren’t aware of how the linking occurs and may object to the method used. 

When linking datasets of individuals, government departments and employees need to be transparent about the methods they employ. Data wallets allow people to opt-in for these kinds of initiatives, although they require data subjects to have a certain level of data literacy. 

A second concern is how to represent the interests of data subjects in ethical discussions. The Open Data Institute (ODI) has done some great work on improving the representation of data subjects, and its Data Ethics Canvas can help ensure data projects address ethical issues early. 

Final thoughts

The opportunities that arise from better data sharing across the government are countless. The potential ranges from improving business intelligence around operational effectiveness, through to better-informed policymaking. 

However, ensuring the success of data projects requires foundational principles to be in place. Leadership and culture are essential to kick start the process. Following the establishment of data-led orientation at the top, building public trust in government data usage will be crucial. It’s important that the government brings citizens along on the journey towards better data management and sharing, as keeping them regularly informed about data use will help to build this trust. Ultimately, with the right foundations in place, the civil service and government will be able to reap the benefits of their rich data sources for the improvement of public services and policymaking.

Bill Wilson, Head of Data and Intelligence Solutions, NTT DATA UK

Bill Wilson, Head of Data and Intelligence Solutions at NTT DATA UK, has over 20 years of experience wrestling with data challenges in commerce, government and the third sector.