Data is more than just information — it’s a valuable commodity. And better sharing of that commodity is key to seeing a public sector that can then better serve its citizens.
The government has found that sharing data, rather than each department collecting and using data individually, is key to providing better, more cohesive services to citizens.1 For example, citizens’ data could be shared from HMRC to the DWP when filing tax returns, so they’d know whether someone is entitled to benefits without that person even having to check. Use cases like this allow government organisations to deliver real value to service users, moving away from disjointed experiences that often rely heavily on the users themselves.
Public sector leaders are on board. In a report from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a key stakeholder called out that, “at the end of the day we are all part of one big public sector, so why shouldn’t the data, where appropriate, be shared to give the greater good back to the taxpayer?”2
There are a number of barriers to public sector data sharing at the moment:
- Legal barriers, namely departments struggling to understand the frameworks in place and trust that they’ll ensure data is shared securely.
- Mindset barriers, including teams feeling unsure and risk-averse to sharing the data they’ve been trusted with.
- Technical barriers, such as poor availability of data and legacy systems.
In this blog, I’m going to explore how data sharing could forge the path to a data-driven public sector, helping to provide even better services to citizens.
Alternative management systems can improve data sharing
Unfortunately, the public has a mistrust of government departments sharing data, which can be attributed to the way many public sector organisations have managed this to date. Most organisations previously focused on collecting data into a big melting pot, creating a sense that the government had turned into ‘Big Brother’. 3
I believe we have to treat data as a first-class citizen and a product in its own right, designed around how to best serve users. If departments consider decentralised methods of data management — like a data mesh — the public mistrust might lessen. This is because data meshes are domain-agnostic, where each department has control over its own data. If another department wants access to that data, it can be shared on a transactional basis. These localised domains are kept consistent by policies and governance at an organisational level, ensuring data is secure and easy to share. Rather than the big melting pot of data, the public can be reassured that their data is only being collected with a specific purpose in mind.
Suggested reading: We’ve recently written about the difference between the Data Mesh, Data Lake and Data Warehouse approach to data management. Take a look here.
It starts with understanding the legalities
For those working in the public sector to feel confident and empowered to share data, there needs to be consistent standards and governance. This holds true for any data sharing agreement, including using a data mesh.
The data protection legislation that public sector organisations must follow is comprehensive, and also provides departments with the security they need to share data with confidence:
- The Data Protection Act (2018) controls how individuals’ data is used, from making sure data isn’t held for longer than necessary to protecting sensitive information such as race or health information.4
- The Data Ethics Framework (2018) offers clear guidance to anyone handling data in the public sector, including how to assess the benefits of that data and making sure your project team is diverse.5
There is also the GDS 2022-25 roadmap for digital and data which provides some good-practice guidelines around how to handle how data is shared, and the GDS is aware of the challenges public sector organisations are facing.6 In my experience, it can be difficult for teams to navigate the GDS roadmap, the DPA or the DEA, and understand how these ideas and policies can be made into a reality. That’s where a partner like 101 Ways may be able to help.
I also believe that policymakers for data governance need to be brought closer to the teams that are sharing data. The standards set need to reflect the actual needs of public sector organisations, and the only way that that can be achieved is through collaboration between departments and policymakers.
We already have authentication services that allow people to identify themselves and verify why they’re accessing data. In fact, we have all the technical components that allow us to share data in the public sector. This isn’t a conversation about technology, but rather about bringing someone in to help set consistent standards and policy.
Empower your teams to make the most of data
Public sector organisations can often be averse to or confused about data sharing. Departments feel a responsibility to look after the data citizens have trusted them with. Although they mean well, that leads them to not share it with those who could benefit from that data, whether they’re team members or in another department.
This is why it’s important to empower teams to share data by showing them the benefits of it. The DWP has done some great work in improving data sharing, so that it’s now easier but also keeping privacy a priority. Their guide to data sharing includes everything the DWP needs to consider before approving a data share, including:
- Ensuring only the minimum amount of data is being requested.
- Checking if there’s a legal power to share this data.
- Preventing that data from falling into the hands of third parties.7
By having clear, consistent guidelines across departments, the public sector can create a mindset shift with their teams, so they can make the most of data while still safeguarding citizens.
We can also learn a lot from the private sector when it comes to getting that balance right. The insurance industry, for example, uses a data sharing service by the Insurance Fraud Bureau, so they can cross-reference all new customers to make sure they aren’t trying to commit fraud.8 Because all insurance providers are contributing data to this repository, they’re all given the right to draw from and benefit from it, too.
To empower teams within government to make the most of data, they need strong policies and strategic direction. The private sector has nailed the brief, and public sector departments like the DWP are proving that it’s possible to do it with citizen data too.
Modernise legacy systems
Modernising legacy systems can be difficult when those systems hold really valuable data. Public sector organisations often feel trapped by still needing access to that data, which means they delay modernising these systems and cause more damage in the meantime. I’ve already talked about the public’s fears of ‘Big Brother’, and how collecting data into one big pot adds to that. The challenge is therefore to figure out how to use data where it is, while also opening up the opportunity to modernise legacy systems.
If organisations built a consistent way of accessing data from other departments, they could start to replace legacy systems while maintaining the access point to the data.
The need to replace legacy technology is growing greater, as the GDS is actively looking at creating a single login for all government services. This could really streamline how data is accessed or shared, but is a big leap into the unknown for a lot of government departments. What this also opens up is a conversation about making sure digital identities are verifiable. There are good-practice frameworks around keeping identities secure in the GDS roadmap, which 101 Ways can help navigate. After all, you don’t want to accidentally start providing NHS records to the wrong person!
Suggested reading: We delve into designing modern data platforms in our blog Data Platform // How to become a more data-driven organisation.
How data sharing can transform the public sector
Improved data sharing can transform how the public sector operates as a whole, and I’ve already seen that play out for a range of departments. I mentioned the DWP earlier, and another great example is how the ONS handles the Census. If you filled out the Census before 2007, you probably remember having to input every personal detail separately, a task that can be both time-consuming and frustrating. Now, thanks to good data sharing policies, the ONS can pull that data across from various departments, so that all you need to do is correct anything that seems out of place.9
Some more departments leading the charge in data sharing include the DVLA and DVSA. The DVLA holds two registers of data:
- The Driver Register, which includes names, addresses, dates of birth and any other information that’s relevant to holding a licence.
- The Vehicle Register, which identifies vehicles (helping law enforcement) and helps collect vehicle tax.10
The DVLA follows GDPR, but it also must follow some data sharing standards put in place by the Department for Transport. This means that its data is only shared when someone has “reasonable cause”. This data sharing agreement supports tax authorities, law enforcement, and even parking associations. However, DVLA data is also extremely useful to individual citizens. Data is shared from garages in real time (or as quickly as it can be uploaded) to the DVSA, providing them with vehicle information and MOT status. This information is then lined up with the data the DVLA has on the driver and vehicle, alerting the relevant driver about their MOT.11
The DVLA and DVSA’s ways of sharing data has had huge benefits for other sectors such as insurance, as well. Insurers can access data from these departments to:
- Identify who else was involved in a road accident.
- Detect if a road accident was staged to commit insurance fraud.
- Track down uninsured motorists.12
There are sectors where data sharing is still a work in progress, such as the NHS. The countless different trusts, regions, and websites that need consideration make data sharing difficult.
Plus, while citizens can book GP appointments online, get emergency referrals, switch GP practices, and view prescriptions quite easily, there’s still the issue of accessibility. Not everyone can jump online to book a GP appointment and these people need to be catered for as well.
This is why at 101 Ways we have the ethos of ‘incremental delivery’. Not everything can — or should — be delivered at once. Digital transformations happen step by step, catered to meet the ever-changing needs of your users.
Forging a path to a data-driven public sector
The government has issued a lot of roadmaps, guidance and directives to improve how data is handled in the public sector. Actually navigating all that and making it work for your organisation is a whole other beast, but can be made easier by working with technology partners like 101 Ways.
We’ve spent years dedicated to helping businesses transform how they work in a scalable, agile way, and are all set to take that expertise to the public sector. From unpacking how your teams interact with new technology, to developing a greater understanding of digital and data, we’re ready to future-proof the public sector. Keen to transform how you work? Contact us today.