Publication Digital Machinery of government 16 August, 2018

Sharing the benefits: how to use data effectively in the public sector

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This report demonstrates the potential of data sharing to transform the delivery of public services and improve outcomes for citizens. It explores how government can overcome various challenges to ‘get data right’ and enable better use of personal data within and between public-sector organisations.

Watch our video for a short overview of the report:

Ambition meets reality

Government is set on using data more effectively to help deliver better public services. Better use of data can improve the design, efficiency and outcomes of services. For example, sharing data digitally between GPs and hospitals can enable early identification of patients most at risk of hospital admission, which has reduced admissions by up to 30 per cent in Somerset. However, government has not yet created a clear data infrastructure, which would allow data to be shared across multiple public services, meaning efforts on the ground have not always delivered results.

The data: sticking points

Several technical challenges must be overcome to create the right data infrastructure. Individual pieces of data must be presented in standard formats to enable sharing within and across services. Personal data also needs to be presented in a given format so linking data is possible in certain instances to identify individuals. Interoperability issues and legacy systems act as significant barriers to data linking. The London Metropolitan Police alone use 750 different systems, many of which are incompatible. Technical solutions, such as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) can be overlaid on top of legacy systems to improve interoperability and enable data sharing. However, this is only possible with the right standards and a solid new data model.

Building trustworthiness

The ability to share data at scale through the internet has brought new threats to the security and privacy of personal information that amplifies the need for trust between government and citizens and across government departments. Currently, just 9 per cent of people feel that the Government has their best interests at heart when data sharing, and only 15 per cent are confident that government organisations would deal well with a cyber-attack. Considering attitudes towards data sharing are time and context dependent, better engagement with citizens and clearer explanations of when and why data is used can help build confidence. Auditability is also key to help people and organisations track how data is used to ensure every interaction with personal data is auditable, transparent and secure.

Legal complexities

The legal framework around data sharing is often described as highly complex. New legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), sits on top of pre-existing frameworks, which can create a nebulous system for public-sector organisations to navigate. Legislation has at times struggled to keep pace with the rapidly evolving way in which data is being used. It is, therefore, crucial to provide mediums which demystify legislation for those trying to understand how to use data properly within the legal landscape.

The enablers

Creating a new data infrastructure which allows organisations to overcome barriers to data sharing and build on government promises outlined in its Transformation Strategy, requires clear leadership and a collaborative approach. Opportunities are arising to redirect leadership through new structures, such as the Data Advisory Board, and new positions, such as the Chief Data Officer. Local government can also play an important role in promoting data sharing across the public sector. Local data-sharing agreements can provide an infrastructural and standards template for larger-scale data-sharing agreements. Building on these models can help spread best practice and improve data-sharing standards across the country.


  • Public-sector organisations should offer synthetic datasets, which they can share with others so that requests for data adhere to the right data standards in each organisation.
  • Within the Government’s Framework for Data Processing, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should create a Data Quality Assurance Toolkit and ensure that public-sector bodies submit data to be tested.
  • The Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport should create a seal of approval, similar to the O’Neil Risk Consulting & Algorithmic Auditing (ORCAA), which indicates that data quality is satisfactory and that biases within datasets have been accounted for.
  • Technology vendors selling to public-sector bodies should ensure that their products are compatible with relevant Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), allowing this technology to overcome interoperability issues and government to change providers with ease.
  • Moving forward, it should be mandatory for any system procured within the public sector to adopt open standards, encouraging competition and improving interoperability by avoiding vendor lock-in situations.
  • Government departments should identify and support initiatives like Understanding Patient Data in all policy areas, supporting organisations if they need to properly engage citizens and understand how they want their data to be used across public services.
  • All government departments should prepare to develop audit trails which track how data is used to ensure every interaction with personal data is auditable, transparent and secure.
  • Government should, in partnership with the Information Commissioner’s Office, investigate and publicise the optimum training needed to familiarise public servants with the handling of personal data, to reduce the fear of using and sharing personal data.
  • The Information Commissioner’s Office should continue to partner with specialist organisations, like the former Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, who help demystify legislation, with resources and case studies specifically catered to public-sector bodies.
  • The new Data Advisory Board should focus its attention on tackling the difficult challenges stopping effective multi-agency data sharing. The Advisory Board should include a representative from each department to ensure collective responsibility.
  • Data-sharing policy should be included in the remit of the Chief Data Officer, so there is a specific individual championing best practice towards data sharing across siloed departments.
  • Leadership on the sharing of individuals’ personal data should come from the Cabinet Office rather than the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to help to ensure that the Government’s data-sharing strategy has influence that reaches across departments.
  • Local government should play an important role in the establishment of data standards and infrastructure. By giving local areas space to try and test data-sharing arrangements, it will help to demonstrate which projects are successful and could be scaled-up regionally and nationally.