Data availability: Government has an abundance of data, but most of it is not used to its full potential, with barriers ranging from real or perceived legal concerns to technical differences in collection. At this round table, policy and digital leaders will consider how they could make the greatest impact on data availability across government, and what steps could be taken to achieve this impact.
Chaired by Tamara Finkelstein, Permanent Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Kindly supported by Leidos

As the use of data progresses and evolves, we begin to question the benefits and the risks. ‘How do we overcome the new challenges collectively as one Civil Service?’ - is the big question that was asked during this session on data availability.

The key issue that the panel initially addresses was the lack of trust from the general public in how their data is handled and used. One speaker said that the only option is to be open, transparent, honest and trustable. The panel discussed a potential risk and rewards strategy, thinking about a model in taking data via consent and showcasing the benefits. Without the trust of the public it would be impossible to implement the changes needed to use data efficiently.

It’s important to recognise the culture shift in the new consistent use in data, one speaker shared a personal anecdote about being tasked with the registration of her GP practice, she said that despite her husband refusing to share any forms of personal data she would opt in as she believed that in a life and death scenario it was important the relevant medical practitioners had all the information they needed to provide the best care. 

The conversation moved to the barriers to international trade for SMEs as a result of a mistrust in data handling at the Department for Business and Trade. Often they receive feedback that despite their close relationships with trade partners small businesses would prefer not to share their commercial plans as they know multiple people can see and access the data. 

One speaker raised the need to advocate for the importance of data ability despite there being a distance between what politicians want and this key area. This also came with the importance of being properly upskilled and informed on how to handle and interrogate data most effectively, this highlighted the barrier of lack of resource also preventing the sharing of data inhibiting vital work. This led to the reference of the radical combination of ex prisoner data and employment data at DWP which meant they could see whether ex-prisoners were going to work or not. It was such a massively important thing to know what is happening to someone who's coming into prison, but every time that data matching process was done, it took months and months to actually get the big insights from it. 

Many of those who attended reflected on the use of data in the fight against Covid19. One speaker mentioned the policy rationale for embedding code paths within the HSR used to encourage more people to use the NHS app and how the process was efficient in order to deliver at pace. What it explored was how straightforward it was if you were vaccinated in England, but of course you had people who were selflessly taking part in vaccine trials who were unaware if they had had the placebo or actual vaccine, these complications could limit travel and again led to distrust. 

One participant then raised the difficulty of the privacy of the NHS number, and supported Ukrainian refugees to ensure they can operate within UK systems. Which led to the discussion around legal barriers around GDPR and who we define as the legal owner of data. If there are multiple owners that pass data and they have conflicting definitions on the laws around using data then how do you effectively interpret the data given without breaching regulations. Is there a way to define an owner? One suggestion was to introduce a government data owner but there were concerns around this solution. 

One speaker than said that In the health space the legal problems are ‘disguised’ human problems; they are cultural issues where by people are choosing to interpret a frankly complicated legal landscape which means fundamentally ‘I don't have to share my data.’ The incentives for sharing data aren’t perceived to outweigh the risks around incorrectly sharing data, so the natural human reaction isn't to share data. It's less that we need a place for data ownership but more so that we need a final definition on data ownership. 

One speaker then agreed that there is a fundamental risk and incentive problem, however no one raised the risk of not sharing data and that data owners have a duty to share their data, for example if a doctor had vital data that could save lives they have a responsibility to act upon that and share that data. 

The chair then moved to the conversation on how policy makers use data and whether they used data to the best effect, whether this be in a strategic or operational effect. She stated that she wanted the Civil Service to use data more to be strategic with our policymaking and that collectively we need to look at data to see the new insights on a certain problem. This also sparked a conversation on how civil servants use data to best inform ministers and whether change is needed. 

In summary, there is a cultural shift needed to improve the way we use and share data to bring around change. We need to increase the incentive of sharing data and also be honest and transparent on the uses of data to ensure we have public trust to gain the insights needed to support policy.