What does a Citizen’s View of Government look like?

Rather than a “single Government Department” that does whatever it wishes, the alternative is to operate a citizen’s view of Government: a view which doesn’t assume the citizen has to learn how all of Government works – but for which, in any and all interactions with the public services, citizens can see how their data was used for those purposes.

Government is taking for itself the powers to copy any data it likes to anywhere. And, in the context of the power imbalance between citizen and State, even individual consent is insufficient as a check; “Give consent or you don’t get your benefits (and therefore you can’t eat)” is not consent freely given.

However, for citizens who have no need to deal with particular parts of Government – and whose data isn’t therefore used – there’s no necessity to know about them in the first instance. Over time, pretty much everyone touches pretty much everywhere, but the starting point isn’t a big list of Government organisations and abstract possibilities; the starting point should be each citizen and the reality of his or her interactions with Government.

In much the same way as you have a unique medical history – and you were in each of the appointments – you have a more or less unique series of interactions with Government, and you were probably at most of those appointments too.

As the rate of technologically-driven change gets ever faster, Government needs to meet expectations, or suffer from letting people down. GOV.UK was just a start of that process, not an end – and it has stalled.

On data, Government is using the same measures that suggested a junk mail leaflet about copying medical records would be enough. With ongoing transparency to citizens, and an expectation of engagement for those who are interested (not necessarily monthly, but regularly) the scale becomes equivalent to the rate of change, and the curve becomes a straight line.

It’s unclear how data will be used in 100 months’ time in any industry, but it is pretty clear that it will be only incrementally different to how it is used in 98 months’ time – and in between those two is the opportunity to talk to people about how their data is used, and how the world is moving.

A 20th century government relying on 19th century institutions is struggling in a 21st century world. Government could, if it chose to, use digital technologies to explain itself to its people– restoring confidence both in Government and in vital institutions, through accountability and integrity: doing what you say you will do, and showing that you have done it.

Below, for example, is a pretty on-screen dashboard for a Government Data Usage Report telling you how the various public services that you’ve logged into via GOV.UK Verify have used your data:

'How the Government uses your data' interface mock-up

To steal a phrase from Baroness Lane-Fox, accountability of how data is used should mean ‘reaching the furthest first’. Not solely in terms of digital exclusion – assisted digital is, of course, vital – but in terms of Departmental inclusion, and in terms of providing information (and meaningful action) for those whose trust in Government handling of their individual-level data has been most damaged.

Had the Cabinet Office run a substantive “Open Policy Making Process” around data, with real engagement and discussion, rather than the meaningless charade they chose, this is where it could have ended up.

Egregious cockups around public data will continue until there is leadership on a new approach

Accountability for the way in which patient data is used came out of the wreckage of care.data – and, as a consequence of a separate nation-scale data breach, you can now see where your GP record has been accessed for direct care. Given the Government’s plans for data usage, it may be that accountability will come out of similar future wreckage – designed and implemented by those who see care.data as a playbook, not a warning.

It is data projects in secret that cause the most problems. Transparency drives up data quality, as citizens can see that errors mean that their data wasn’t accessed when it should have been –- or was accessed when it shouldn’t have been. Transparency to individuals about their own data provides a scaleable feedback mechanism that allows for projects to correct in small increments, rather than exploding.

Most data handling in Government, and in commercial contexts, is no worse than it was in the Health and Social Care Information Centre in 2013. It just so happens that public expectations of the NHS mean the issue was addressed there first. With rare exceptions, all data handling is terrible – the main difference being that the NHS has been more honest about it than most. The number of British passports issued to people born in the great country of Yorkshire might astound you. (They misread the form.)

It is deeply ironic, although not amongst particularly strong competition, that the Minister most accountable for the way in which UK citizens’ data is used is Theresa May – with the requirement that she must know how MI5 uses bulk personal datasets.

Without a properly independent “Partridge Report”-style process – doing one on yourself, like Public Health England, simply locks in broken thinking – and without a full accounting of the status quo, Government will not know what it is currently doing with data. And without knowing what is currently happening, it cannot get better.

The lack of coherent and consistent information asset registers across government departments, following events like the HMRC’s child benefits data disaster was striking. GDS 2010-2015 may have had a go, but Sir Humphrey fought back. How many databases does he use? We actually still don’t know – and it’s 2017 and, via the Digital Economy Bill, the Cabinet Office just got the Single Government Department Clause it tried sneaking through in 2009…

Accountability, possible under a Digital Economy Act’s Codes of Practice, will need either high-level political leadership, or another data catastrophe. Or both. The burning question is whether leadership will come from the unfortunate Minister who finds a care.data-like project in his or her portfolio, or whether there is a Minister willing to lead from the front.

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This entry was posted in choice and consent, communications data, database state, GDS, ID cards, medical confidentiality, open data, privacy, transparency. Bookmark the permalink.

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