Government told to shout about big-data success stories

Written by Rebecca Hill on 22 February 2017 in News

The government could change the public’s perception of big data projects by focusing on improving its marketing as well as increasing transparency, a conference has been told.

Panellists at a conference said the government needs to identify success stories and shout about them - Photo credit: Flickr, floeschieCC BY 2.0

Speakers at the Reform think tank’s conference on big data in government said that one way of increasing public trust and confidence in sharing data was to better sell the benefits of big data projects.

“The issue is primarily a communications challenge,” said Laura Citron, managing director of marketing communication company WPP's government and public sector practice. “Of course transparency and control matter, but beyond that, how we communicate with people significantly affects willingness to share data.”

Citron said there were three main things the government should make clear when communicating with the public: why the data is necessary, who is asking for it - for instance, the NHS or ‘the government’ – and what the benefits of the project are.

“The more tangible the benefits, the more meaningful for the individual, the more acceptable,” she said.

Mark Thompson, a senior lecturer in information systems at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, agreed, saying that it building public trust should involve talking about “what people gain, rather than what they’re giving up”.

He argued that if the government “can get some success stories and market the hell out of them” it could change people’s opinions. “It’s about the PR as well,” he said.

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Bringing government data to life

A third panellist, Hetan Shah, executive director at the Royal Statistical Society, said that Whitehall could learn from local or regional projects that have been well received by the public.

He said there had been “much more enthusiasm” for local projects like crime maps, because people are interested in data that tells them more about something, rather than only those projects that aim to improve their interactions with government.

“We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s all about transactions,” he said.

Shah also called for researchers to be given access to the data that the government holds, saying that it was a “no brainer” that would help researchers generate a better evidence base for policy, he said, which could also be used to increase public trust in policymaking.

The government’s Digital Economy Bill, which is making its way through parliament, sets out conditions for such sharing of data with researchers, as well as for increased data-sharing between departments.

However, this section, on digital government, has come under fire from opposition MPs, open data experts and privacy campaigners, who have said that more clarity is needed on the safeguards and conditions of data use.

In November 2016, a group of 26 individuals and organisations wrote to The Telegraph, saying that there needs to be “clear guidance for officials, and mechanisms by which they and the organisations with whom they share information can be held to account”.

Culture and skills

The panellists at the Reform event also noted that there were issues within the civil service that needed to be addressed before big data projects will be commonplace in government.

For instance, Shah said that all civil servants – not just those specialising in data projects – need basic numeracy skills so they feel more confident in working with data.

Meanwhile, Thomson said that public servants “often have a reluctance to share data” due to a long-term culture of working in silos. The only way to address this, he said, was to reform the working practices within Whitehall and the wider public sector.

“We need to think about the reform part as carefully as we talk about the data part,” said Thompson.

The chief executive of the civil service John Manzoni, who gave the keynote address at the conference, set out some of the ways the government is trying to tackle this, including data science and data skills training for civil servants at all levels.

His speech also emphasised the importance of building public trust and that this would have to be earned over time – comments that were later echoed by Shah, who said that gaining trust can’t be rushed.

Shah said: “It’s like happiness, if you chase after it, you won’t get it.”

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