Plenary workshop with Francis Maude | 22 Oct 2014 | Meeting note

10:00 – 13:00, 22nd October 2014
Admiralty House, Ripley Courtyard, 26 Whitehall, London

Background

For the past 6 months, representatives from government, the wider public sector, academics, privacy organisations, and wider civil society have been discussing data sharing as a solution to three issues.

  • Better understanding UK society and economy, through enhanced research and statistics
  • Tackling fraud and better management of debt
  • More effective tailoring of public services

These open policy discussions have resulted in an interim progress update which summarises the current areas of consensus and disagreement. This half-day session on the 22nd October, jointly facilitated by the Cabinet Office and Involve, allowed civil society organisations to review with policy officials and the Minister the progress and findings thus far, and discuss next steps.

Introduction to the session by Simon Burall & Peter Lawrence

The objective of the plenary workshop was outlined; to ensure that the interim update was a fair reflection of progress to date and agree how to move forwards.

The group were updated on longer term objectives. Originally the hope was that consensus could be reached around September after which a White Paper and or draft legislative clauses could be developed. However, it was now clear that whilst high level consensus had been reached on many matters there was still much to discuss on how current thinking could be implemented in a way that would enhance public services whilst maintaining citizen privacy. Therefore the expectation of a White Paper or draft clauses being published in this Parliament was removed. It was suggested that moving forward with discussions around points of detail would enhance the level from which any following publications or public consultations would then begin.

The workshop was framed as a staging point, to work out where the group agrees, disagrees and where more work needs to be done.

Open space discussions

The process

There was discussion looking both backward and forward. The group suggested it would be helpful to understand the levels of engagement in the process through numbers of attendees from civil society and government at the various meetings. It would also be helpful to acknowledge barriers to engagement, such as time, resources, location and issues such as high impact data sharing decisions or policies being announced at short notice from other parts of government being prioritised. This would feed into lessons learned from the process.

The group also suggested that there should be an acknowledgement of how the policy paper might be used in future, as a platform for future policy proposals.

Having undertaken some round table discussions, where people were free to move from group to group the feedback was:

Research & statistics

The group felt that the paper as it stands should address issues relating to the application of any resulting powers in relation to third parties and the devolved administrations. It was also felt the paper needs to be clearer on the questions of the destruction, retention and timescales for each agreed, accredited or approved data share. There needed to be more on: scrutiny options and concerns around them, the cost and the benefits, clarity around information assurance strands and the consequences that could arise from current review of EU data protection legislation.

Fraud, error and debt

The group fed back that the government’s ‘digital by default’ agenda is central to questions of data around fraud, error and debt, and government should be able to share data automatically, otherwise there would be no benefit gained from digital by default.

The group also made the point that government is doing a lot of work on data sharing at the moment, which is not reflected in the report. There needs to be greater use of case studies made, of where it’s worked well.

The group also reflected that there needs to be a better reflection of debt and the problems around debt. Should we take debt off the table, as it’s different to error and fraud?

Tailored public services

The group asked the question: how do we assess the benefits of data sharing and make the business case? Is it possible to evidence the assertion that the majority would benefit?

They also discussed consent, asking: what is the mechanism for those who want to withdraw consent?

The group also felt there needed to be more work done on defining the objectives in the draft.

In the context of public services delivered by others outside of the public sector it was asked what the implications might be for third sector, private sector or other external bodies, for example those delivering commissioned services.

The Minister’s reflections

The minister thanked those present for their contribution so far. He welcomed the degree of engagement and commitment of the group, especially non-governmental actors for who contributing to this process was an additional burden beyond the day job. He said being open was the only way to conduct a process like this – doing it the ‘old world’ way would not work in this territory.

We’re working in the public interest, which is very complex. There is a real benefit in using the data we have better, and this is an uncontroversial outlook. However, people are rightly concerned with government abuse of data, and this is a counter opinion. The third dimension is that technology is changing minute by minute, and this discussion of mixed use data would not have been the same five years ago. This is a hugely worthwhile exercise and the more we know between us the more chance we have of finding the point of settling and consensus.

The risks and threats will change, to privacy, security and the abuse of state power, but the possibilities and benefits will also change.

The Minister described the process as incredibly beneficial and ground-breaking in its focus on collaboration.

He asked everyone to remain engaged as we move forward to the next steps of looking at lower level detail. He suggested a checkpoint of the end of the year.

The Minister noted his intention to check in with government colleagues across all parties, as it’s not a party political issue. He was hoping to have draft legislation ready for the next parliament with a high degree of consensus. He acknowledged it was unlikely anything more formal would happen in this Parliament, but noted as he was a politician he wouldn’t, of course, rule it out.

Questions to the minister

  • What is consent? How do you revoke it? How can you consent to a monopoly service? Should you, and how do you, remove consent from de-identified data for targeted services?
  • What is the aspiration on data-sharing? What does the minister feel the negatives are? Looking for a political steer.
  • Using private sector techniques for debt collection is an area of concern. Debt is fundamentally different from fraud and error, when the issue is that people fundamentally cannot afford to pay back a debt to the government.
  • Worry about the lines blurring between statistical and operational data, and giving government access to identifiable data. This could be a red line for civil society.
  • Comment that an independent code of practice on data matching is necessary. Statutory sharing is a challenge to the Data Protection Act so a code is necessary.
  • Will there be acknowledgment of this work present on gov.uk?

Next steps

Research & statistics

Going forward the default for this strand would be communication by documente-mail with meetings only where necessary. By Christmas, the group plans to circulate justification and powers on trusted third parties, push health to come back on the exclusion de-identification strand and engage with open policy-making members on the process for devolved issues. ONS is reviewing detail of options around what could possibly stand instead of Parliamentary scrutiny, this will be shared for comment to the OPM group as soon as possible.

Fraud, error, & debt

The group discussed plans to conduct social media sentiment analysis, with the aim to understand the appetite and tolerance point on data-sharing for fraud, error and debt. They are planning an internal government wide survey to understand the data sets which are necessary and the perceived barriers. They plan to develop pilots and a bank of case study data in order to evidence the benefits of data sharing. There was a discussion of what is possible to do without legislation.

By Christmas, the group plan to have completed the surveys (both external and internal) and developed the bank of case study data. Designing the pilots will take until the end of January.

Further discussion on the future of the Debt element would need to take place quickly to decide if it should remain in play, and if so whether as part of the fraud and error strand or as a separate strand.

Tailored public services

The Tailored Public Services strand will look in detail at the objectives with a draft list to be developed with rationale. Half day sessions with smaller group work will be timetabled, in order to look at detail around defining benefit to citizens.

More work will be undertaken with local authorities in order to understand who they are working with. This will help to answer the question of where to draw the boundary between public and private/3rd Sector.

Final Comments

In wrapping up the point was reiterated that there were now no plans for a formal white paper prior to the election. The aim was to review at the end of this year and jointly take a decision on next steps based on progress at that time.

On the topic of databases, it was commented on that the focus of the group should be around permissions and appropriate access levels, rather than size.

The group were at this point reminded the principles underpinning the data sharing work were that we are not interested in:

  • Allowing the indiscriminate sharing of data,
  • Weakening the Data Protection Act,
  • Building large permanent databases or collecting further data.
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Tim Hughes

About Tim Hughes

Tim is Involve's incoming director, taking over from 21st January 2017. Tim has led campaigns and advocacy on open government; advised national, devolved and local governments, civil society organisations and multilateral institutions; and researched and written on topics including public participation, open government, democratic reform, civil society advocacy and public administration.

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