The UK government's ability to use data to shape public policy and deliver better outcomes for citizens remains predominantly aspirational. To date, the government's focus has been on transparency and open data, preferring to leave the thorny issue of inter-agency data sharing alone. However, the UK is now tackling this issue head-on with the Digital Economy Bill.
The bill, which has begun its passage through parliament, includes clauses that cover improving outcomes of services for people in need, reducing fraud in public services, and using data for research. It aims to change the way data is viewed across the public sector and transform interactions with citizens.
The UK is not alone in addressing the issue of data sharing, but it is going further than most other governments. For most governments, the sharing of data tends to follow an ad hoc pattern and focus on a single issue, ignoring the potential to improve service delivery, leaving savings and outcomes for citizens unrealized. Lowering the barriers to data sharing provides public sector organizations with the ability, if not the means, to look at new ways of using data. The flip side to all this newfound freedom will be a likely increase in the volume of data that public sector organizations have to deal with, adding to the existing issues of which data to filter, clean, slice, and analyze to make informed decisions.
Deriving insight requires the combination of flexible tools that are accessible to domain experts rather than data specialists. While changes to data storage and retrieval architecture and end-user interfaces have reduced the barriers to adoption of analytics tools across government, the cultural barriers that support a siloed approach remain. However, the combination of visual analytics and multiple data sets is extremely attractive for governments and will push more governments to adopt a formalized approach to data, one that goes beyond transparency and open data.
Balancing the use of these new freedoms with the privacy concerns of the citizens involved will be critical, and is not without challenges. In a recent survey, EMC found that 45% of citizens were not happy to have their data shared with or across the public sector. The lack of trust between citizens and the custodians of their data should not be underestimated. Coinciding with the announcement of the Digital Economy Bill, the Department of Health in the UK decided to close the care.data program, which was aimed at joining up GP data with other health data, using anonymized data to help better track health issues and undertake medical research.
Defining the boundaries will be a difficult act, but the possibilities for social benefit from lowering the barriers to data sharing offer governments real benefits. If they have not already started, agencies should be reviewing their existing data management, governance, and publication policies to identify any weaknesses. Public sector organizations' data management policies need to take a realistic view as to which elements of the data they hold should be partitioned and which can be used either in an anonymized format or not.
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