Mark SayManaging EditorWednesday 22 February 2017

Civil Service chief bangs drum for Digital Economy Bill

John Manzoni says the legislation will help to build public confidence in government’s use of personal data

The head of the UK Civil Service has said the Digital Economy Bill (DEB) is being framed to build up trust in the public sector’s use of personal data, with the aim of harnessing the full potential of data for public services.

John Manzoni speaking at conferenceJohn Manzoni (pictured), permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, was speaking at the Big Data in Government conference staged by think tank Reform.

He said that winning public trust is one of the two big challenges facing government in the field, along with building up the Civil Service capability in collecting, storing and using data.

“Trust means giving people confidence that their data is used appropriately and effectively, and that it’s secure, particularly when it’s being shared by different authorities,” he said. “That trust has to be earned.”

Manzoni emphasised the importance of the DEB, which is currently going through Parliament, in building confidence that “government is doing the right thing”.

Public need

“The bill provides a robust legal framework for sharing data between public authorities, where there is a clear public need and benefit,” he said.

He highlighted the potential for authorities to share information with energy companies to identify customers living in fuel poverty, and the use of data in the Troubled Families Programme.

His expression of confidence in the bill follows recent protests that it gives government too much freedom in sharing personal data: in November, a group of academics, privacy activists and officials of professional organisations called on the Government to insert more safeguards. There have also been claims that it could conflict with elements of the General Data Protection Regulation, which is due to come into force in the summer of next year.

Manzoni also pointed to steps already taken to build public trust, including the publication of an ethical framework for data science in government, the creation by the Office of National Statistics of the Five Safes framework, and the beginning of an investigation into government’s use of data by the Royal Society and British Academy.

In addition, he claimed that the GOV.UK Verify platform for identity assurance for online services would contribute to building trust.

He said the issue is related to the need to improve government’s capability in handling data effectively, but there are skills gaps in the area, especially in data science.

The Government is taking steps to build the capability, developing data science skills for analysts under its Accelerator Programme, setting up a Data Science Campus at the Office of National Statistics’ headquarters, and developing a programme in data literacy for non-specialists in the field.

Cultural shift

“Together, these measures are nudging us towards a cultural shift in the status of data in government and those who work with it,” he said.

“And how government uses data in service of the citizen will define how the citizen experiences government. When we get it right, we will deliver the right service at the right time to the right person. And that is our goal.”

The scale of the challenge in winning public trust in the field was made clear in a panel discussion following Manzoni’s speech. Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistics Society (RSS), said it is difficult and that public attitudes are mixed.

“No matter how much you trust the institution in general, you trust it less when it comes to your data,” he said, citing research done for the RSS by polling company Ipsos MORI.

Laura Citron, managing director of the government and public sector practice of branding and marketing company WPP, said that building trust needs a communications effort with a strong emphasis on highlighting benefits of sharing data – the more tangible the better.

“It’s really important for people to understand why government wants their data,” she said.

“We will increasingly find that the boundaries are not around the technology and what you can do with the data, but public acceptance of us using the data. It needs serious investment into how we are communicating, and it is best when it based on research, evidence and testing.”