Do citizens trust the government to handle their personal data?

Chris Doutney, Executive Director, Civica Digital, discusses data sharing, trust and improving public services, following a new Civica survey into data perceptions in the UK

We live in an age of analytics; every day in this data-driven world, we’re giving away personal information, sometimes without even realising it. For example, to access new services I need to enter my personal details, with the trade-off being the uncertainty as to where and how my information will be stored and shared. And this happens all around the world, every single day.

But do people feel they are fully aware of the personal data that government currently holds on each of us? And do people trust them with this responsibility? We decided to find out how much we, as citizens, really understand about the data we share through our recent UK wide survey – and the results were surprising.

Who do you trust with your data?

When it seems that not a week goes by without some form of data breach hitting the news, knowing what data government and wider organisations keep on us should be something we care about.

Both public and private sector firms need to remember that the vast majority of consumer data they possess is not owned by them. Our survey found that only 57% of us trust the government to handle our data, with varying regional differences from 56% distrustful in Northern Ireland to 40% in Scotland and 37% in the North East.

This trust matters as it’s a major factor when it comes to what people are willing to share. More than half of those surveyed (53%) would trust organisations more if they were clear what personal data they stored on them and how they use it.

However, many are still wary over recent public security attacks, with the main issues citizens have about sharing their data being the security of how it’s held (61%) and the lack of control they have (37%). So once we ‘loan’ our data to government bodies, it’s their responsibility to keep it safe and secure, while also using the data to improve the services we receive.

Why should we share?

The mutual benefits of sharing are recognised by many. Almost half of respondents (48%) we surveyed said that data sharing would lead to better services. While there are trust issues to overcome, and the threat of living in a ‘Big Brother’ surveillance state underpins this somewhat, this can, and will soon, be addressed as the government works to give consumers more control over their personal data.

The impending EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires organisations to be more open about the data they hold, and why they hold it. In turn, consumers will be able to request to see what data organisations hold on us, as well as given the ability to update and remove our personal information if required. Yet our survey found that a staggering 88% of people are unaware of what GDPR is – so there’s huge need for more education as to what the new rules mean for us as citizens.

Under GDPR, organisations will also need to understand what data they hold in the first place. With a mass of data available, the core issue that the public sector must address is how to manage and analyse this data to create real benefits for citizens.

Some headway has been made to use technology intelligently to mine and join-up consumer data to benefit service delivery and pass on savings. However, with countless public services relying on multiple systems, there’s an imperative to adopt a ‘whole area approach’ to identify and avoid overlap between organisations, to reap the benefits of sharing data more easily between public services, draw out insights and create predictive services.

A change of focus

For anything to change, it must become easier for the public to engage with public sector organisations. A mind-set shift is needed, from the present day where consumers associate data sharing with being tracked or spied on to one where they understand that providing data allows for more efficient and joined up service delivery – that can benefit them.

Citizens, myself included, freely transfer money via mobile banking apps or share our location via social networks every day, but the challenge is to apply this same willingness to share to how consumers engage with public services. Crucially, policymakers will only win the public’s permission to remain the custodians of their data by showing the lengths public service organisations go to safeguard privacy and prevent data breaches, especially vital ahead of the 2018 GDPR legislation.

That’s why government organisations must educate UK citizens on the benefits of data sharing. Communication needs to focus on stressing the benefits of this sharing, as well as the impact of not – for example, by showing how the NHS can use patient data to predict and potentially halt a decline in patient health. Incentivising data sharing can also help, with practices in this area already underway.

It’s not a case of making small changes – it’s about re-engineering the way public sector organisations and people engage with each other. Once the mutual benefits are not only acknowledged but also understood, we, as citizens, can really allow government organisations to transform and improve all of our lives for the better.

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