Cabinet Office consultation paper points to tightly managed mechanisms for sharing and third party model with encryption for using personal information in research
A pair of data sharing gateways to improve public services and support the fight against fraud have been proposed as the centrepieces of a Government consultation on the use of data in public sector organisations.
A third element involves the creation of a 'trusted third party' model to manage de-identified data from different sources for research.
The Cabinet Office has published the consultation paper, Better Use of Data, saying it is aimed at maximising opportunities for effective data sharing and building good practice.
It amounts to an effort to resolve the tension that emerged around public sector data sharing in the 2000s, and has affected various initiatives including the last Labour Government's identity card programme and the more recent Care.data project in the NHS. While advocates of data sharing have highlighted the potential benefits for public services – in terms of convenience for the recipients and efficiencies for the service providers – plans have often met vociferous opposition from privacy activists.
The new document splits the proposals into three sections, highlighting the aims of improving public services, tackling fraud and debt, and allowing the use of data for research and official statistics.
In the first case it proposes legislation to create a single gateway for public authorities to share personal data for tightly constrained reasons, that should be agreed by Parliament, to improve the person's welfare. The prime conditions are that it is only used when the objective could not be met without data sharing, it is not realistic to obtain the person's consent, and sharing de-identified data would not achieve the outcome.
It would be up to the specified public authorities whether or not they disclose the data – giving them discretion to make their own assessment of the arrangements – and the organisation receiving the data could only use it for the specified purpose. There might be “very limited circumstances” in which it could be used more widely.
A similar gateway could be developed for anti-fraud purposes, reflecting the fact that some already exist for specific authorities, such as between the Department for Work & Pensions and local authorities to deal with tenancy fraud.
The proposed new power would give public authorities faster access to data for pilot schemes, but they would have to make a business case for any data access arrangements. It would also require proper governance, determined by a central code and overseen by a strategic steering group of people from government, civil society organisations and independent observers.
Any data disclosures would also have to go through three stages of validation, light analytics and detailed analytics.
Management of data for research and official statistics would not change existing models and arrangements, but would require a link to the 'trusted third party' recommended in a report by the Administrative Data Taskforce in 2012. This involves removing any data that could identify an individual within a dataset and replacing it with code or encryption.
The document also includes a series of questions following each of the proposals.
Ease and security
The consultation is set to run for eight weeks, focusing on how data held by public sector organisations is accessed and used. The Cabinet Office said it is aiming to develop an approach that makes citizens' lives easier while improving data security.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock said: “Data is the fuel for the digital revolution. The very best policies and services are developed around information that’s current, relevant and makes sure you can access government services just as easily as iTunes.
“There is huge potential for improving citizens’ lives through data sharing in the UK. The consultation we launch today will help make sure we get data right and bolster security whilst making people’s lives better.”
The consultation is the next stage of a year long open policy-making process that the government has been running in collaboration and partnership with civil society organisations.
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