Government urged to learn from pandemic data sharing

Government should make data available to different levels and parts of government and engage the public about how their data would be used, says report from the Institute for Government

Posted 21 February 2023 by Christine Horton

A new report by the Institute for Government says the public sector could have done a better job at sharing data during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study cites examples of how the pandemic forced changes to standard working practice that enabled new data sharing agreements to be created quickly. These include the creation of the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable People Service – which required sharing individual address and health information – in a matter of weeks. The government also used data to inform operational decisions through initiatives like the NHS Covid-19 Data Store and NHS National Data Platform and various business support schemes.

However, the think tank noted that there were aspects of data sharing that could have gone better, such as making data available to different levels and parts of government and engaging the public about how their data would be used.

The report finds that current legislation, such as the Digital Economy Act and UK GDPR, does not constitute a barrier to data sharing. And while technical barriers – incompatible IT systems, for example – can slow data sharing, they do not prevent it.

Instead, the pandemic “forced changes to standard working practice that enabled new data sharing agreements to be created quickly.”

Recommendations for government

The report recommends the government retain data protection officers and data protection impact assessments within the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, and consider strengthening provisions around citizen engagement and how to ensure data flows during emergency response.

It also says the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities should consult on how to improve working around data between central and local government in England. This should include the role of the proposed Office for Local Government, data skills and capabilities at the local level, reform of the Single Data List and the creation of a data brokering function to facilitate two-way data sharing between national and local government.

The Institute for Government adds that the government should complement this by reviewing the role of the UK Statistics Authority to support timely data and data sharing across all nations and regions in the UK.

Elsewhere, the organisation says the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) should create a data sharing ‘playbook’ to support public servants building new services founded on data. The playbook should contain templates for standard documents, links to relevant legislation and codes of practice (like those from the Information Commissioner’s Office), guidance on public engagement and case studies covering who to engage and when whilst setting up a new service.

Finally, it calls for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, working with CDDO, to take the lead on guidance and resources on how to engage the public at every stage of data sharing.

Last month the Cabinet Office is seeking views on a proposal to support departmental data sharing to enable access to online government services.

Check out the upcoming Think Data for Government event, here.