Public Services > Central Government

Bracken queries Whitehall bulk data sharing reliance

Neil Merrett Published 11 October 2016

Former GDS head gives evidence along with ODI chief exec Jeni Tennison to Digital Economy Bill Committee questioning current opaqueness of government approach to information management


Former Government Digital Service (GDS) chief executive Mike Bracken has called for greater clarity on data sharing arrangements by departments, as well as curbing Whitehall’s reliance on bulk information sharing during a committee review of the Digital Economy Bill.

The proposed legislation seeks to set out infrastructure requirements and a regulatory environment that will underpin efforts to make Britain one of Europe's most dynamic economies for online services, while also addressing privacy impacts on organisations.

It will include provisions on areas such as broadband connectivity and the rights of artists and other individuals profiting from digital content, as well as outlining how authorities can disclose information to another public body with the aim of improving service delivery and tackling online abuse.

Speaking today before the committee reviewing the proposed legislation as its moves through parliament, Bracken – now chief digital officer with the Co-op – said despite welcoming the sentiment behind the broad regulatory changes, detail was limited around the operational management of information sharing by departments.

Answering a question by Labour MP Louise Haigh, who has just been appointed shadow digital minister after Jeremy Corbyn retained leadership of the party, Bracken said there were many complicated issues around information and sharing, most importantly around privacy and security.

He said it was unclear as yet whether the current sharing agreements for data within government were “appropriate”.

“It would appear that the move away from open registers of data may hamper the appropriate levels of sharing data in government,” Bracken said. “It may also be the case that the friction [Co-op] members and members of society feel in dealing with duplicate or inconsistent sets of data that lead to substantial problems in accessing government and its services, may not be improved with the current sharing policies set out.”

Haigh pressed the former GDS chief on whether he thought the bill would be a step back for public trust with regard to government data handling.

Yet Bracken said he viewed the sentiment behind the legislation proposed as a positive forward step, although the individual sharing arrangements employed by departments were still seen as “opaque”.

Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital and culture, questioned whether it was the purpose of the bill to define exact measures for data sharing.  Hancock argued that changes were more an administrative matter in terms of reforming government practices, rather than legislative requirements.

“That is to say that the government needs to move in that direction, and I would argue, is moving in that direction that you set out, but you needn’t put that in the bill, you need to make that happen,” he said.

Bracken agreed that primarily, the issues were not as much about the content of the bill, and more about how departments chose to share information.

“Too often there was an assumption that those changes would need regulatory backing, my experience was pretty much 100% that was not the case, these [changes] are largely about administrative and operational management of data across Whitehall and departments,” he said.

“Clearly, there are some areas – security being an obvious one – where you do need more legal oversight, but it’s not about a bill so much.”

Questions were also raised about how the bill may tackle wider public sector information projects such as the now defunct The programme, focused around sharing information derived from GP records, was delayed and ultimately cancelled this year on the back of ongoing criticism from practitioners and privacy groups about how personal information may be used.

Bracken argued that from the prospective of Whitehall, which he accepted was held to a different standard that some private sector organisations, government departments shared data in many different forms. However, he questioned if this sharing policy was a valuable strategy to continue with, as opposed to opting for allowing more specific querying of information held by government.

“Hopefully, [many of these forms of government data sharing] are secure and anonymised. I have doubts about our overall data sharing operation simply because government is so distributed and there is so much data,” he said.

“Adding more sharing without a clear landscape under which that’s happening seems to add more risk or privacy violation, and more risk of security.  Perhaps a way to think about it is access rather than sharing.  Many government departments are able to provide individual data points, at point of request, to people who trust them.”

Bracken argued that as an alternative, an application programme interface (API) could be developed to allow for data to be queried around more specific areas rather than the ongoing sharing of entire data sets between departments.

“It is this willingness to share, in different ways, very large sets of data for the convenience of the government department or agency that is the root cause of the unease around the data sharing bill, I suspect,” he said.

Bracken added that the concept of data sharing had to be down to an individual’s decision on how they wanted personal information shared, with government too often relying on bulk information sets, rather than individual mechanisms to query the specific details they needed.

Also questioned during the session was Open Data Institute (ODI) chief executive Jeni Tennison, who raised issue with the often complicated language within the bill relating to ensuring public understanding of how data would be used both at present, and once legislation  is passed.

“It is hard to understand the measures in the bill within the context of the existing data sharing agreements that exist within the public sector. What we would like to see is a lot more transparency around what existing measures there are within government for data sharing and how these measures fit with those existing ones so that people can really get to grips with the way which data is flowing through government.”

In specific relation to the future sharing of private and personal data, such as healthcare details, Tennison said it was vital to drive public trust through much more transparency about how information was being used and who may receive the details, as well as circumstances.

Tennison said that from her view, the bill did not “go far enough” to avoid the doubt over data use and sharing within the public consciousness that had led to high profile criticisms being raised around projects like

“Those principles of having openness around the handling of personal data is what will drive public trust towards its use.  We are in a very difficult space here between trying to balance the right to privacy of an individual with the public good we can get from data,” she said. 

“It’s a fuzzy and difficult one and an issue we are going to be working through for many years.  But having transparency and openness about it enables us to have an informed debate about where we are making that balance.”

The session was held following the announcement by the Cabinet Officer that GDS director of data Paul Maltby would be stepping down from his role once his contract expires in late December.

A Cabinet Office insider indicated Maltby’s leaving was due to the end of his contract and not an indication that he is being replaced.

It is understood that the new GDS director general Kevin Cunnington has been examining GDS’s operations - his strategy is expected to emerge in about four weeks' time -  and there is a perception among some close to government, that the overall GDS data strategy has made slower progress than they were expecting.

That may be as much due to the inexorably slow pace of data policy through the Cabinet Office rather than any reflection on Maltby himself, however.

Of Maltby’s departure, Cunnington said: "Paul will be leaving GDS when his loan from Whitehall ends at Christmas. Over his last three years in the Cabinet Office, Paul has put data at the centre of government thinking and made great strides on open data and building a community of data scientists in government."

Related articles:

Maltby to leave Government Digital Service

GDS data director outlines data register expansion ambitions

Tennison to lead Open Data Institute

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