Better access to reliable and accurate data has the power to improve lives. This is the fundamental building block of all public services and has to be part of any digital transformation.
We can see the power of good quality information, and the need to make the public sector fit for purpose in how we hold, access and use data. Although the technology underpinning how data is queried is changing, the need for the legal permission to access data remains a critical issue, as is the need for robust ethical and privacy standards. Getting this right is why we formed the Data Group in the first place.
Government is only as strong as the data it is built upon. The data clauses in today’s Digital Economy Bill have been designed to make government services better, more agile, and more tailored. They were developed over two years of open policy making with civil society and then a wide-ranging public consultation.
We know that the current system is not working as it should. There are outdated unworkable barriers in place, which prevent services being able to make the most appropriate use of data to help people. And the problem is getting worse the longer it is left unresolved.
So we have developed new powers that will remove unnecessary barriers to the effective use of data in specific circumstances in the public sector, but with firm safeguards built in. We know that people want their data protected, and we know security must be at the centre of this Bill.
We know that people will also be worried about who has access to their data and how it will be used. The statutory Codes of Practice to be laid before Parliament, will set out ethical considerations and principles around the proportionate and transparent use of information for the benefit of citizens. All of the clauses will be governed by the legal protections provided to people in the Data Protection Act over the use of their data.
Data measures within the Bill fall into three distinct groups, and the first of these is improving public services. We plan to allow limited access to personal data within the public sector in order to protect the most vulnerable. This will help to identify those in need, so the government can provide help in a more seamless way.
In a practical way, this means finding people who are living in fuel poverty or who need help with re-tuning televisions in 2018/19 after Ofcom has finished clearing the 700Mhz band. It also means making civil registration data easier to share between trusted public bodies so that they can check information provided by users.
The second strand we looked at is around tackling fraud and debt more effectively. Every year the government spends billions on trying to deal with these issues, on top of how much these activities already cost public finances. If local authorities are able to work together it will help to detect, prevent and, where necessary, investigate and prosecute those involved. With debt it will improve ways of supporting those in hardship: reducing multiple contact with government to a more efficient, targeted system.
And finally the Bill brings in new ways to boost our research and statistics capabilities. Rather than relying on surveys, the Office for National Statistics will be able to access detailed data from across government to provide more accurate, frequent and timely statistics. It will also give researchers the ability to use public sector information to support their work, but with strict rules on securing that information.
The Digital Economy Bill will help to make a difficult legal landscape easier to work within. It will enable public sector bodies to modernise but with safeguards to ensure that data is handled safely and securely including criminal sanctions for unlawful disclosure of data.
As our Executive Director, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, said last week, the role of GDS is transformation and that goes much deeper than upgrading government technology or resigning our websites. We are already making better use of data in the public sector, and we will continue to build on this work. It is the only way to keep user needs at the core of what we do.