Data in the Rest of Government – the Cabinet Office Data Programme

If you see as anything other than a complete success of vision and implementation, this Cabinet Office “process” should cause you concern.

Organisations that want to copy your data around Government have developed a figleaf to allow it. It forms the basis for the “Digital Economy” Bill that has been laid before Parliament, and which will be debated after the summer.

To inform that debate, we’ve used NHS England’s public comments to answer the Cabinet Office “Data Science” “Ethical” “Framework”.

Because we exclusively use NHS England quotes, this runs to 2 sides of paper in length. The Cabinet Office version is one side long, so this is twice as long as they think it should be.

If you’re wondering whether could happen again, this is how:

Cabinet Office Data Science Ethical Framework: justification for

  1. Start with a clear public benefit:

– How does the public benefit outweigh the risks to privacy and the risk that someone will suffer an unintended negative consequence? (PIA step 1)

“NHS England is introducing a modern information service on behalf of the NHS called The service will use information from a patients’ medical record to improve the way that healthcare is delivered for all.” (Source: NHS England)

– Brief description of the project, including data to be used, how will it be collected and deleted. (PIA step 2)

“The programme will link information from different NHS providers to give healthcare commissioners a more complete picture of how safe local services are, and how well they treat and care for patients across community, GP and hospital settings.” (Source: NHS England)

    – What steps are you taking to maximise the benefit of the project outcome?

“At the moment, the NHS often doesn’t have the complete picture as information lies in different parts of the health services and isn’t joined up.  This programme will give NHS commissioners a more complete picture of the safety and quality of services in their local area which will lead to improvements to patient outcomes.”  (Source: NHS England)

“The information can also be used by NHS organisations to plan and design services better, using the best available evidence of which treatments and services have the greatest impact on improving patients’ health.”(Source: NHS England)


  1. Use data and tools which have the minimal intrusion necessary

– What steps are you taking to minimise risks to privacy? (for example using less intrusive data, aggregating data etc)

“The HSCIC has been handling hospital data securely in this way for decades.  The system is designed to be extremely secure, with a suite of safeguards to protect confidentiality.” (Source: NHS England)

“The service will only use the minimum amount of information needed to help improve patient care and the health services provided to the local community. A thorough process must be followed before any information can be shared and strict rules about how information is stored and used are followed.” (source: NHS England)

  1. Create robust data science models

– What steps have you taken to make sure the insight is as accurate as possible and there are minimal unintended consequences? (for example thinking through quality of the data, human oversight, giving people recourse)

“Everyone making healthcare decisions needs access to high quality information: clinicians need it to inform their decision making; patients need it when deciding which treatment option is best for them; and commissioners need it when making decisions about which services are right for their populations.” (source: NHS England)


  1. Be alert to public perceptions:

– How have you assessed what the public or stakeholders would think of the acceptability of the project? What have you done in addition to address any concerns?

“Materials and guidance have been developed in collaboration with the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), to support practices to raise awareness. Patients who are not happy for their data to be used in this way can ask their GP practice to make a note of this in their medical record and this will prevent their information leaving the practice.”  (source: NHS England)


  1. Be as open and accountable as possible?

– How are you telling people about the project and how you are managing the risks?

“NHS England, together with the Health and Social Care Information Centre, announced that throughout January, all 22 million households in England will receive a leaflet explaining how the new system will work and the benefits it will bring.  The leaflet drop is the next stage of NHS England’s public awareness plan and follows wide consultation with a range of stakeholders including GPs and patient groups.”  (source: NHS England)

– Who has signed this off within your organisation? Who will make sure the steps are taken and how? (PIA Step 5)

“This programme is too important to get wrong, and while I think that there is understanding on both sides of the House about the benefits of using anonymised data properly, the process must be carried out in a way that reassures the public.” (Source: Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, to Parliament)


  1. Keep data secure

    – What steps are you taking to keep the data secure?

“The NHS is very good at preserving the privacy of people in analysing that kind of data.” … “in 25 years there’s never been a single episode where the very strict rules have ever compromised the patient’s privacy,” (source: Mr Kelsey of NHS England on BBC Radio 4audio)

According to the Cabinet Office, that’s all you need to do as “answering these questions will also act as your Privacy Impact Assessment” (top of page 6). That is clearly ridiculous – the above is as false and misleading as it is entirely accurate. The privacy impact assessment was 32 pages long plus other supporting documents.

The Digital Economy Bill makes the above superficiality entirely legal for any part of Government to acquire data from any other, and will be discussed by Parliament in September.

Reporting to a new Minister, and a new Director General, the GDS data programme needs an external review to provide constructive input from outside the existing whitehall silo. Otherwise, across Government, the public facing legacy of GDS may become style fiascos.