Public Services > Central Government

Manzoni outlines public trust challenge behind Whitehall data aims

Neil Merrett Published 21 February 2017

Civil Service lead outlines broad need for “transparent” approach to information sharing to change how citizens interact with departments


Civil Service chief executive John Manzoni has outlined a need for gaining and retaining “public confidence” in the government’s use of data as reviews continue both in and out of parliament with regard to Whitehall’s governance of information.

In a speech delivered to the Reform think tank, Manzoni set out the government’s long-held ambitions to ensure what it described as the “proper use” of the enormous quantities of data that it holds.  The speech was unveiled as parliament considers regulations for information sharing, particularly with how information can be transferred between departments and for what purpose.

“Data entrepreneurs are mining public sector data to create apps and services to make our lives more convenient,” Manzoni said. “Services driven by open data are already giving people more choice in where they get their healthcare, where they live and where their children go to school. There’s even a Great British Public Toilet app - a sort of relief map of the country!”

With the publication this month of the government transformation strategy, incorporating the role of the Government Digital Service (GDS), and ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of the Digital Economy Bill, Whitehall has been playing up its commitments to data sharing.

However, Manzoni has identified challenges in ensuring public acceptance of data sharing initiatives undertaken by government, while at the same time outlining the potential for following and trying to emulate innovation already seen in the commercial sector.  

“With the evidence of data we can spend less time developing policy and services that don’t work, and instead focus on continuously improving those that do,” he said.

Privacy groups have remained sceptical about the government’s commitments to protect and share citizen data within a clear framework, arguing Whitehall has failed to learn lessons from previously abandoned health information sharing projects such as  This has led to criticisms of data sharing provisions in the Digital Economy Bill from some MPs and pressure groups, with calls to remove and rethink powers altogether over fears about how data may be used.

Key aims

Manzoni said that the government hoped to achieve three main aims through its future data strategy.  These are focused on improving the experiences of citizens interacting with departments, improving overall Whitehall efficiency and boosting business and the UK economy.

“I want people to turn to digital public services as readily and confidently as they do when shopping, socialising or checking bus times,” he said.

“By doing so, we can actually change the way citizens interact with us - making the relationship we have with them more transparent, more responsive, and based on increasing levels of trust."

Taking the examples of “big service” delivery departments such as the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Manzoni said that data analytics would offer the ability to search across organisational information sets and better plan services.

He said that in the case of the DWP alone, this might allow for the department to provide job seekers with more targeted advice or opportunities.

Mention was also made of potential efforts within the UK health sector to embrace data, such as a partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital and DeepMind Health - a division of the multinational Google – aiming for improved diagnoses of eye diseases.

“At the moment, clinicians rely on complex digital eye scans. 3,000 of these scans are made every week at Moorfields. But traditional tools can’t explore them fully, and analysis takes time,” he said,

“Moorfields will share a data set of one million anonymised scans with DeepMind, who will analyse them using machine-learning technology. This can detect and learn patterns from data in seconds, to quickly diagnose whether a condition is urgent.”

The post era

Although the data being used in the project has been anonymised, the shadow of the defunct project, which aimed to support clinical planning through information extracted from GP records, still looms over future health initiatives.

The decision to abandon was taken based on recommendations by National Data Guardian Dame Fiona Caldicott over concerns about privacy and how patients were informed of their rights to withhold or control personal data.

Manzoni argued that that the need to balance potential benefits from opening up and bringing together diverse government data, with the ethical issues of doing so, made ensuring public trust in its use of information was critical to all future commitments.

“In partnership with civil society, GDS has published an ethical framework for data science in government. It is based on the key principles of data security, openness, user need and public benefit. And it highlights the importance of ensuring the data and models we are using are robust,” he said.

At the same time, The Royal Society and British Academy are conducting an independent investigation into the use of government data and how it is managed.

Echoing commitments from previous and serving Cabinet Office ministers to improve data governance and sharing to move away from a more silo-like approach of data, the government is now seeking to put in place a new chief data officer and cross-government advisory board for information.

Paul Maltby had previously served as Whitehall’s data lead, but his contract was not extended beyond the New Year, leaving the position vacant.

Manzoni said that with new leadership to be put in place government was looking for stakeholders to share views around data that should be opened up.

“We need to partner with you to help us navigate the difficult ethical judgements about how to share data in the right way,” he said.

Related articles:

Delayed GDS strategy unveiled in wider Whitehall reform plan

Privacy groups urge dropping entire Digital Economy Bill data clause

Shadow of defunct looms over patient record sharing progress

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