Comment Blog 7 June, 2024

Data: a problem shared

Joe Hill
Policy Director

Some issues are absolutely central to the business of governing — but will never get any attention during an election campaign. Data sharing is one. Don’t go looking for it in anybody’s manifesto, but getting data right will mean the difference between success and failure for most policies that make it into manifestos.  

When I was a civil servant, data sharing was always a thorny topic. Concerns usually followed a familiar pattern: 

  • The public don’t want their data shared within government. 
  • Public servants don’t know how to share data because the rules aren’t clear, and are worried they will be blamed. 
  • The software won’t allow data to be shared, because it is locked into legacy systems which require investment to upgrade — investment which never comes. 

This story will be recognisable to many — it has attracted sage nods in meetings since I joined the civil service in 2015. Reform raised the issue in a report as far back as 2018. Data sharing concerns have been used to justify some new policies, and as a blocker to delivering many others. But are they still really a problem? 

A recent PACAC report concluded that "constraints on data-sharing often aren't about constraints of data protection or compelling ethical concerns, but departments actually having the impetus to do it". This checks out.  

In an interview with Civil Service World, CDDO Chief Digital Strategy Officer Gina Gill talks about the importance of a new conversation with the public about data sharing, based on explaining the benefits of it to service users. Has that been tried in any of the previous attempts to integrate personal datasets? It should be. 

Public servants can act when data sharing is a priority. The ICO are clear that “in an emergency, you should go ahead and share data as is necessary and proportionate” — a key basis on which more health data was shared during the Covid-19 pandemic, reinforced by the National Data Guardian Dame Fiona Caldicott in guidance issued during the first national lockdown. As public service performance worsens, do we not have more and more emergencies on our hand which justify similar sharing? 

It hardly seems that money is the barrier, particularly when it comes to sharing data between departments, when the Treasury set aside a Shared Outcomes Fund to invest in just these kinds of projects. In December the then Second Permanent Secretary, Cat Little, told the Public Accounts Committee that the Treasury was disappointed with how few bids there were for funding — only 28 across the whole of government. Particularly when departments often bill each other for data sharing, as “policies that affect other departments’ spending” in the Consolidated Budgeting Guidance, a programme targeted at cross-departmental working should the perfect way to fund these projects. Lack of take-up implies the problems run deeper. 

We need to admit that PACAC are right, and aversion to data sharing is mostly because departments don’t have the incentives to do it — a sure sign that they shouldn’t be the ones to decide. Departmental fiefdoms shouldn’t be the barrier they are to sharing data — the next government should consider centralising the ownership of key datasets.