The chief executive of the civil service has said that the now-scrapped NHS patient data-sharing programme Care.data was a “misstep” that put efforts to increase government data sharing back.
Speaking on Tuesday at a conference on big data use in government, organised by the Reform think tank, John Manzoni said that gaining and retaining public trust was “absolutely critical to achieving our ambition of a data-driven government”.
This, he said, meant giving people confidence that their data is used ”appropriately and effectively” and that it is secure, especially when it is being shared between different authorities.
Civil service chief John Manzoni urges change as data revolution ‘comes for government’
DWP seeks £130,000-a-year data chief
Unlocking the power of big data
“Information and data is power, he said. "Which is why, historically, the ability to communicate and understand it was so jealously guarded. Now that we are openly releasing information, we have to do so responsibly.”
However, the civil service chief acknowledged that government would be closely-watched and had to earn the public’s trust, admitting that there had been times when negative publicity and opacity had held back the agenda.
“Quite frankly we had a misstep with Care.data, and that put us back a long way,” Manzoni said.
He added that this was the reason that the government commissioned the Caldicott review.
This review, led by National data Guardian Fiona Caldicott, and published in July, looked at data sharing agreements and opt outs for patient data, although it did not look specifically at Care.data.
“Everyone at every level should have an appreciation of the power of data" – civil service CEO John Manzoni
It suggested a new, simplified model for consent and opt-out for patients, and the results of a consultation on the recommendations are due out soon.
Manzoni added that the ongoing review and consultation was one of the reasons that the government had left the health sector out of the reforms set out in the Digital Economy Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament and aims to make it easier for departments to share data with each other.
In his speech, Manzoni also highlighted a number of public sector data projects, including a research partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital and Google’s DeepMind for earlier detection of eye diseases.
“Moorfields will share a data set of one million anonymised scans with DeepMind, who will analyse them using machine-learning technology,” Manzoni said. “This can detect and learn patterns from data in seconds, to quickly diagnose whether a condition is urgent.”
Manzoni also noted that there were many cases where government did not need to use personal data, and could make more of the data it already holds, such as information on flood risks, company records and house prices.
In addition, he pointed to work on opening up government datasets for developers to create apps and for businesses to make more informed decisions – for instance, Manzoni said that British wine producers are already using terrain-mapping data to decide where to plant their vines.
This, he argued, would help the government increase productivity and boost the UK’s economy, as well as providing “a new stimulus for data-based businesses”.
But Manzoni also stressed that such schemes rely on the government’s ability to properly use the data it holds, and lamented the fact the civil service was “still very short of the key data science skills in government”.
He reiterated his support for extra training for data scientists within government, for instance through the Data Science Accelerator programme, as well as increased basic training for everyone, even if they are not directly using data.
“Everyone at every level should have an appreciation of the power of data,” he said.
This will also help build trust, he said, noting that there is a “clear link between public trust and government capability in its handling of data”.
"We have to get Verify right"
Elsewhere in his speech, Manzoni emphasised the need to meet the government’s target of having 25 million users signed up to the flagship identity assurance programme Verify.
The system, which currently has around 1.1 million users, verifies people’s identity through one of a number of providers and has been in development for half a decade.
As well as increasing public trust in the government, and ensuring the government knows the people using its online services are who they say they are, Manzoni said that there were “massive opportunities” for Verify outside government.
This would, he said, offer people a single verification service for other digital services, such as online banking and booking flights.
However, not all departments are using the service, and HMRC came under fire last week after a blogpost revealed that the department was developing its own, separate identity assurance scheme to replace its Government Gateway programme when it expires in 2018.
The department later issued a correction to the blogpost to emphasise that the new service would only be for businesses, as well as publishing a statement saying that it was “committed” to using Verify for individuals.
In a separate panel session at the Reform event, Mark Thompson of the Judge Business School in Cambridge said that Verify should be the government’s priority in its data work.
“We have to get Verify right,” he said. “It’s an architectural hub at the centre of data economy. Either we’ve got to all use it and get it right, or come up with something different.”