A critical juncture for public services: lessons from COVID-19 Contents

Chapter 8: A new approach to data-sharing

154.Kirklees Council, a local authority in Yorkshire, described how organisations at the centre had approached data-sharing during the pandemic:

“Data-sharing from organisations such as PHE (Public Health England) and DHSC has been wholly inadequate … the lack of data on testing … has left local areas with no mechanism for monitoring the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 … Local arrangements that have been put in place to try and address the gaps in national data-sharing have required lengthy manual data cleansing processes.”160

155.In this chapter we describe how existing relationships between local services enabled some local areas to plug these gaps. We heard how local leaders were able to collect data on their local communities and share this knowledge with services working on the frontline.

Data-sharing failures at the national level

156.COVID-19 has highlighted inadequate data-sharing between national and local services. Jessica Studdert of the NLGN said: “At an early stage in the pandemic local authorities did not receive information from the NHS about shielded groups, even though they were responsible for delivering food and essential supplies to them.”161

157.Care England set out how, unlike in the NHS, the absence in social care of a systematic data collection system overseen by a central body had impeded efforts to track infection rates and coordinate a response. “Greater national data transparency at an earlier stage would have allowed providers to make better-informed decisions around contingency planning” and could have avoided “unnecessary deaths”, it suggested. 162

158.COVID-19 has shown that the Government and other service providers need to rethink their approach to data-sharing. There has been too much reluctance from the centre to share data with organisations at the local level which are responsible for public services, hindering the efficient delivery of quality, person-centred services.

159.We recommend that the Government and national public services review their systems for sharing data with local services. Unless they have access to the information that they need, public services will be unable to meet the challenges posed by winter 2020/21 and the second England-wide lockdown.

Innovative data-sharing at the local level: a ‘place-based’ approach

160.In contrast to the reluctance of national organisations to share data with their regional and local counterparts, we heard that many local efforts to overcome data-sharing barriers were successful, particularly in areas with a history of close partnership working. Anna Round of IPPR North had witnessed “some really good examples of data-sharing at the local level” which were key to ensuring that services understood and met local needs during the first lockdown.163 Vicki Sellick, Executive Director of Programmes at Nesta, an innovation foundation, told us that Nesta had “seen some brilliant data-sharing examples”, particularly in local areas which had “already established [data-sharing partnerships] and had set themselves up well”.164

161.In London, councils shared data from across the capital on children who relied on free school meals, allowing services to provide additional support during the first lockdown.165 Hackney Council used “unique property reference numbers” to compare datasets and service records in order to build a “single picture” of vulnerability in the borough. This included information on people’s names, addresses and what made them vulnerable.166

162.We also heard how the Greater Manchester Combined Authority had made innovative use of data during the pandemic. For example, 10 councils in the GMCA area created a digital dashboard where care homes reported issues such as COVID-19 outbreaks and shortages in PPE. The dashboard enabled other local health and social care providers to offer support.167

163.Eamonn Boylan of the GMCA said:

“We have been talking for years about how significant a step forward it would be for to us to have a single digital patient record that all clinicians across Greater Manchester could access … we did it within six weeks of the pandemic lockdown because it just had to happen; it was so necessary.”168

164.The NLGN said: “There are opportunities for places, particularly cities and city regions, to adopt new data standards and invest in common approaches and tools for information governance.” It added that “national public services should trust and utilise the capacity within local systems much better and share data from the outset.”169

165.Local areas should have the means and autonomy to maintain the data-sharing innovations developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government should set out in the white paper on English devolution how it will support local areas and city regions to adopt new data standards, and how it will invest in common approaches and tools for information governance.

The case for a new approach to data-sharing

166.Despite the impressive innovation seen in some parts of the country, we heard that many local leaders did not understand regulatory guidance on data-sharing. This lack of understanding had inhibited co-operation in some local areas.

167.During the pandemic the CCO had “encountered confusion amongst local areas” about what information they could share on vulnerable children, “with most local areas carrying on as before in terms of information-sharing and cooperation, or ‘muddling through’”, but reporting that they were “unsure of the legal basis”. The Office therefore called for new Government guidance on data-sharing powers and duties.170

168.We are concerned that agencies do not share the data that they need to support vulnerable children and to determine which children need their help. The Government should issue new guidance on data-sharing powers and duties to protect vulnerable children, and, if necessary, introduce legislation to ensure that such data is shared.

Towards a new consensus on data

169.Inadequate data-sharing can have deleterious effects on the quality of public services. When people use multiple services, providers may be unable to share the data that they need to ensure that delivery is tailored to individuals. Partly this lack of integration derives from cultural reluctance and risk aversion to sharing personal data;171 partly it results from systemic barriers such as data protection regulations; and partly from silos between different agencies. Kirklees Council called for a “revised approach” which would “enable new data flows to be established quickly while still being compliant with GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation)”.172

170.However, the widespread roll-out of digital public services seen during the pandemic relied heavily on personal data. Professor Nick Pearce of the University of Bath noted that “the biopolitics of the COVID-19 pandemic” had not yet been widely discussed. He contrasted this lack of discussion with Asian democracies, where the debate on the balance between data protection and the provision of services was “far more developed”.173 We heard that in Taiwan (Republic of China), the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic had encouraged officials to build consensus around the use of digital technologies.174 Audrey Tang, Taiwanese Minister without Portfolio, explained how during COVID-19, Taiwan had built on this consensual approach: “We … ask people to rate and rank acceptable measures of using digital technologies to counter the coronavirus … and act only on the one that has broad consensus.”175

171.The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham CBE, told us that COVID-19 represented “an opportunity to get the public more on side with data-sharing”.176 She said that while cultural issues in the UK might have inhibited data-sharing during the pandemic, the current data protection legislation was flexible enough to “allow the sharing of data for the public good and in the public interest, as long as it is shared because it is necessary, transparent and proportionate”. She added: “I do not understand where the fear [to share data] is coming from.”177

172.Despite the Information Commissioner’s claims, the data-sharing failures that we have seen suggest that public service leaders do not fully understand the existing regulations and are not sufficiently confident in their ability to share data for the public good. Elizabeth Denham pointed to a forthcoming statutory code on data sharing—which will explain the data-sharing ramifications of upcoming changes to data protection legislation—as an opportunity to strengthen existing guidance for public services.178

173.While some local areas were able to innovate and share data in new ways during the pandemic, many public service leaders lack the confidence and understanding of existing data protection legislation to share information about individual service users with system partners. Such reluctance can limit the ability of public services to keep people safe, particularly during national crises.

174.The Government, while recognising the need to protect personal data, should work with the Information Commissioner to build on the innovation in data-sharing seen in some local areas and to better understand the structural, legal and cultural impediments to data-sharing during the pandemic. Once the forthcoming statutory code on data-sharing is published, the Government and Information Commissioner should release updated guidance on how any such impediments should be addressed.

175.The use of data was a critical factor in determining citizens’ experience of public services during the pandemic, and particularly for vulnerable people. The role of data in the delivery of public services will grow in prominence in the months and years ahead, as new digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence (AI) become more readily available to public service providers. A future inquiry may investigate data-sharing in public services more closely.

160 Written evidence from Kirklees Council (PSR0010). See also Q 80 .

161 Q 10

162 Written evidence from Care England (PSR0004)

163 Q 13

164 Ibid.

165 Written evidence from New Local Government Network (NLGN) (PSR0039)

166 Written evidence from New Local Government Network (NLGN) (PSR0039) and London Borough of Hackney (PSR0098)

167 Q 13 and written evidence from NLGN (PSR0039)

168 Q 36

169 Written evidence from NLGN (PSR0039)

170 Written evidence from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office (CC0) (PSR0106)

171 Written evidence from New Local Government Network (NLGN) (PSR0039)

172 Written evidence from Kirklees Council (PSR0010). For information on the GDPR, see Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), Guide to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-data-protection/guide-to-the-general-data-protection-regulation-gdpr/ [accessed 20 October 2020].

173 Q 6

174 Q 119

175 Q 121

176 Q 111. See also Q 106 (Professor Sir Ian Diamond).

177 QQ 105–07

178 Q 108 and Information Commissioner’s Office, ‘ICO consultation on the draft data-sharing code of practice’ (9 September 2020): https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/ico-and-stakeholder-consultations/ico-consultation-on-the-draft-data-sharing-code-of-practice/ [accessed 30 October 2020]

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