Councils snub government data-sharing due to ‘lack of clarity on usage and benefits’

Study commissioned by DLUHC identifies a range of issues that prevent local authorities from sharing information with Whitehall, including legal and logistical concerns, as well as lack of existing relationships

Many councils remain wary of sharing data with central government because local officials lack clarity on how data will then be used and the benefits that might result, a study has found.

The governemnt has published findings of research commissioned by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, as part of its Better Outcomes through Linked Data (BOLD) programme to promote and enable public-sector data-sharing.

The research, based on a small number of in-depth interviews conducted by digital consultancy Softwire, identified seven core barriers that currently get in the way of councils sharing data with central government.

Two of these respectively relate to “privacy concerns and a lack of clarity on data usage” and a “lack of clarity on the benefits of national data linking”.

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“Councils also raised concerns about the wider impacts of participation, such as whether funding outcomes could be impacted or whether data could be used in relation to border enforcement and benefit claims,” the study added. “Local councils expressed uncertainty about the benefits of central government-led, national level data linking versus local-led initiatives. There was also a general lack of understanding the benefit of sharing PI (personally identifiable) data, as the potential tangible outputs and outcomes are not made clear.”

In addition to this, councils also decline to share data because of concerns about the legality of doing so, manifested in “fear of making the wrong decision as data controllers, and varying levels of risk appetite and experience present a significant barrier to some councils in signing data-sharing agreements”.

Other barriers include a belief that initiatives to share data will be “burdensome” on already-stretched local-government resources, as well as reticence among those not directly employed in data-related roles.

The research also identified “logistical challenges related to collecting, cleaning, and inputting data into multiple systems”, which include “lack of IT system integration, compounded by a lack of resources and funding, can hinder local councils’ willingness to participate”.

The final hurdle uncovered by the report is a lack of existing relationships with central government – a challenge which is particularly present for “smaller councils outside of London”.

To help overcome these barriers, the report puts forward six recommendations, the first of which is that governemnt needs to ensure that data-sharing initiatives are properly communicated to the right people – at the right levels of seniority – in local authorities.

The study further recommends greater clarity in defining the roles and responsibilities of data-sharing agreements, as well as better articulation of the benefits of sharing information.

The levelling up department could also build trust across the local-government sector by ensuring “reciprocal data sharing and improved communication around outcomes”.

“As local councils reported that outputs from data collections were not always provided in a timely manner, DLUHC should take a more active role in ensuring that data collections across the department result in practical outputs for the local councils which provide them,” the report said. “Creating a culture in which the timely return of outputs is a priority will go some way towards motivating local councils to partake in data initiatives in the future.”

The penultimate recommendation is that government should put more effort into the logistical and systemic challenges, and the final suggestion is to “conduct further research for additional insights”.

“Further to the specific recommendation, DLUHC needs to be aware that implementing data sharing initiatives can be a time-consuming process, and it may take several years to get these initiatives in place”, the report added. “By recognising the challenges and taking a deliberate, strategic, and collaborative approach to data sharing, central government can maximise the benefits of sharing personal data whilst building trust and mitigating the risks as the initiative unfolds.”

Sam Trendall

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