Common data standards are essential for governments – but so is public trust

By on 15/03/2021 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Common data standards are essential to help governments connect the information they hold to develop seamless digital services for the public. Credit: Pixabay/Pexels

Standards and infrastructure are central to improving data-sharing across government, a recent GGF webinar found. But equally important is a less tangible asset: public confidence and engagement. Adam Green reports

Data is often described as the oil of the 21st century: a precious resource that can transform the way we live. If this is the case, governments are sitting on reserves that could enable them to develop citizen-centred policies and deliver seamless digital services tailored to individuals, at scale and efficiently.

But to reach this goal, civil service bodies need to share information – and that means adopting common standards to govern how data is collected, recorded, stored and maintained. At a recent GGF webinar, senior civil servants from around the world gathered to discuss the use of data in government. And while common data standards are essential, the panel found, a much bigger task is securing public trust for governments to make use of the information.

Setting the standard

Recent years have seen a flurry of appointments to roles such as chief information or chief data officers, alongside the adoption of data policies to drive reforms and improve information use in government. In the UK, for example, the Data Standards Authority was established in April 2020 to improve how the public sector manages data. Meanwhile in Canada, a data strategy roadmap was published in 2018 to set out how the government planned to improve use of its information.

Tom Dufour, director general of the Strategic Data Management Branch of Statistics Canada

The first challenge is to agree common standards and formats for storing data so that information gathered by one department or agency is intelligible and useful to another. “Standards are essential for collaboration. They’re the bridges we need to communicate ideas between individuals across sectors and nations, even across time,” said Tom Dufour, director general of the Strategic Data Management Branch of Statistics Canada.

This can be easier for new services, or for data being collected for the first time. Nadun Muthukumarana, data analytics partner at knowledge partner Deloitte, described his work with a forum of senior UK civil servants that is focused on establishing ‘canonical models’ – determining how to define and label any piece of data collected in a way that can be understood and used in other departments.

But for existing services, adapting historical datasets is much tougher. The data formats used, for example, in companies’ tax returns, are well established; and any number of additional services may have been built to consume information provided in that format. This creates a dilemma for government agencies: how to implement common data standards that will benefit wider government while keeping those services running?

The second major challenge is sharing data securely. Even if all departments adopt common standards, their systems need to be opened up to allow data to flow safely from one agency to another. In Estonia, this is achieved through the “X-Road”: a network through which most public sector bodies – and many private sector institutions – can communicate. But for most governments, implementing this within existing systems is difficult. 

Compulsion or cooperation

Sue Bateman, deputy director for data and innovation in the UK’s Government Digital Service

Developing solutions that work across governments requires central co-ordination. But panellists noted that there is a careful balance to strike between setting whole-of-government standards and giving departments the autonomy they need to function effectively.

Sue Bateman, deputy director for data and innovation in the UK’s Government Digital Service, recognised a tension between “the degree to which I and my team sitting in the centre of government… set the standards and controls that we expect other organisations to adopt, versus the degree of flexibility that we give organisations.”

That balance has financial implications too. Data collection can be costly, Muthukumarana pointed out, and rules which mandate data acquisition and storage need to have clear outcomes. “The economics, the cost of curation, the cost of sharing, and what is the benefit of sharing – all of that is still not 100% sorted out.”

Justin Marsico, chief data officer at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service in the Treasury Department

Bateman has been focusing on acting as an enabler and cooperating with other departments. But there is also a role for mandating change in some areas, she said, pointing to the Data Standards Authority and the potential to define minimum quality requirements around data collection. The appointment of senior data leaders in civil service bodies is also essential to push through change, she said.

In the US, government has used legislation to drive progress. Justin Marsico, chief data officer at the Bureau of the Fiscal Service in the Treasury Department, explained that since 2019 the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act has required major federal agencies to appoint chief data officers and work on data governance strategies. They are also legally required to publish information, and to regularly audit that information so that its accuracy can be assessed.

This legislative framework has pushed government bodies towards collaboration. Marsico is part of a working group that meets with major agencies regularly to agree on common standards for data sharing and the ease of publication.

Persuading the public

But even if governments can solve the technical obstacles to sharing data between departments, will citizens be happy to let them do so? Bateman pointed out that in countries such as the UK, there are sensitivities about the sharing of health and financial data in particular.

There are two ways to solve this problem, according to Sigrit Siht, director of data policy at the Department of State Information Systems in Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. The first is to deliver something that citizens value. As Estonians have seen the benefits of free-flowing data – including simplified tax returns, and access to perks such as free transport – they have learned to trust their government with it.

Sigrit Siht, director of data policy at the Department of State Information Systems in Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications

The second key element is transparency. Estonian citizens have sight of every individual use of their data within their government portal, with information on exactly who has accessed what information. The government also publishes regular videos explaining how new technologies such as artificial intelligence are being used in different government services, demystifying them for citizens.

Marisco also stressed the importance of proving value to gain public trust. As well as coordinating data standards, his department also publishes information about US government spending. But rather than simply throwing out data, his team present it in an easy-to-absorb format that can help answer citizens’ questions. “We’re judging ourselves by whether people are consuming this information and understanding it and leading to insights, not just putting it out there,” he said.

Marisco also urged governments to be brave when it comes to data-sharing, rather than assuming citizens will resist. Legislation has helped here too. Thanks to the Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, any piece of data that is not explicitly prohibited from being shared under privacy laws must be made available. Once the default is to share data, Marisco said, the conversation moves away from the fear of public reaction.

The pandemic effect

As with several other areas of government, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the amount and pace of data sharing.

Social and economic behaviours have changed so drastically during lockdowns that long-term data series normally used to predict, for example, traffic levels or energy usage patterns are no longer relevant. This has driven a need to access sources of new and real-time data, helping to identify changes as they occur.

Nadun Muthukumarana, data analytics partner, Deloitte

Muthukumarana called this “effervescent data” – the ability to analyse data in close to real-time and use it to drive insights immediately. “[The pandemic has] absolutely accelerated the need, but also the act of sharing data,” he said. “Without [it] a lot of people will struggle to deliver the services that the organisation has to deliver.”

In Canada, Dufour said, there has been a renewed interest in using data to understand specific parts of society, given the pandemic’s uneven effects on communities. And, emphasising the need for data to be held in common formats, he pointed out that “the best insights that you can get out often come from integrating data – integrating social, economic, environmental statistics.”

But the most high-profile example of data sharing during the pandemic has come from contract-tracing apps. For Muthukumarana, this has often revealed an impressive level of public trust in governments’ ability to handle sensitive data. But other panellists suggested that it also exposed limits to the popular support for data sharing.

Siht explained that even in data-savvy Estonia, the adoption of contact tracing app HOIA has been low, and little information is shared through it. Take-up has been beset by conspiracy theories suggesting the government would use it to monitor movements of all citizens. Estonians, it seems, are happy to share many details with the state – from mortgages to salary – but less confident when it comes to health or physical location.

That came as a shock to a government accustomed to public confidence in its technology solutions, and presents a warning to all civil servants: there is still a battle to be won for public trust.

The webinar ‘High standards: a common language for public data’ was held on 23February 2021, and supported by Deloitte. You can watch the whole event via our events page or below.

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