Sharing the benefits

How to use data effectively in the public sector

Government sits at the heart of a web of data on individuals. Every time citizens visit their GP, pay taxes, or sit exams, data is collected. This data is recorded, analysed and sometimes shared to allow services to better understand user needs and help services to function effectively.  For example, sharing data between GPs and hospitals can enable early identification of patients at risk of hospital admissions, which has helped to reduce admissions in Somerset by 30 per cent. Without proper access to this data, there can be gaps in service provision which can lead to poor outcomes. 

The Government has made the provision of joined-up, citizen-centred services underpinned by data sharing the focus of their public service reform agenda - as demonstrated by the Transformation Strategy. Nevertheless, the Government's efforts to 'get data right’ have not yet lived up to its ambition.  

Instead, Government has focused on "quick wins", such as promoting the use of open data, which is less sensitive than an individual's personal data. Given the potential benefits of sharing personal data, it is critical to examine how it can be better accessed and used within and between public sector organisations

The data: sticking points

The public sector needs to overcome a number of technical challenges to create a strong data infrastructure and enable better sharing across public-sector organisations. This means collecting the right type of data in a consistent format, increasing its quality and creating a secure system to link data between organisations. 

Ensuring the data is of good quality is essential. Government departments do not always record data accurately or keep it up to date. Different departments record information such as names and dates in different ways, which complicates data sharing. One solution is to create a quality kitemark to recognise accurate and well-maintained datasets, for which every public sector body should qualify.

Public services also struggle to share data on individual citizens when their IT systems cannot communicate with each other. For example, the London Metropolitan Police uses 750 different systems, many of which are incompatible. Technical solutions such as Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) can be used to improve interoperability. In time, the Government should make open standards a mandatory requirement of any new public sector IT system to help overcome interoperability issues and allow government to change providers with ease.

Building trustworthiness

Being able to share data at scale using the internet has brought about new threats to the security and privacy of personal information. This has amplified the need to secure trust both between citizens and government and between organisations within and across government domains. 

Public trust in how the Government handles data remains low. Currently, just 9 per cent of people believe that the Government has their best interests at heart when data sharing and only 15 per cent are confident that government organisations would deal well with a cyber-attack. Data breaches and past mistakes when sharing data have not helped to secure confidence. 

To combat these fears, better engagement is needed with citizens to explain how personal data is used in government and by who. The Wellcome Trust's 'Understanding Patient Data' project has been set up to explain how health and care data is used. Government should support similar initiatives across policy areas to help build confidence. Furthermore, data-use should be audited to ensure that every interaction with personal data is transparent and secure. 

Legal complexities

The legal framework around data sharing is often considered complex. Legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which sits on top of pre-existing frameworks, can be difficult for public-sector organisations to navigate. Furthermore, every time information is shared, public-sector organisations must go through the process of finding the right legal 'gateway', which can take years. To demystify legislation for the public sector, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) should team with specialist organisations who can offer expert advice. 

The enablers

Creating a data infrastructure to tackle the various barriers to data sharing requires leadership and collaboration that looks beyond the political cycle. 

To ensure that a data-sharing strategy has influence across departments, leadership should come from the Cabinet Office, rather than Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as is currently the case. In addition, the new Chief Data Officer and Data Advisory Board, whose remits are yet to be clarified, should have specific responsibilities over data-sharing policy to drive best practice throughout government.

There is also a role for local government to promote data sharing across the public sector. Local data-sharing agreements can act as pilots for larger-scale data sharing agreements. Indeed, building on local models can helps to spread best practice across the country. 


The internet and new technologies have opened up opportunities to share data digitally, which can have significant benefits for public services. As more data is collected and generated, there is huge potential to analyse and share data to improve efficiency and citizen interaction with public services. 

Recent scandals, such as the use of data by Cambridge Analytica, have highlighted how data can be exploited and used for purposes it was not meant for. Therefore, it is increasingly important to ensure that every attempt to share data is clear about what that data is used for, and that it is secure. By doing so, it will help to improve trust.

Driving change across government will require strong leadership as creating an effective data infrastructure is not a quick and easy feat. It is, however, a challenge worth facing. Overcoming these barriers will help government to 'get data right'. The result for public services could be truly transformative.