On what principles will data be used in the Single Government Department?

Whitehall proceeds step-wise, and ever more rapidly, towards an end state of a “Single Government Department”. This is Sir Humphrey’s decades-old vision of “Joined-up Government”, predicated upon Government doing whatever the hell it likes with your data, wherever and however it gets it, in flagrant disregard of Data Protection and Human Rights, Articles 8 and 14 (at least). User needs or departmental needs?

In a world where there’s a single Government (and government) data controller – the Data Controller in Chief; the Prime Minister, the final arbiter – will a single Department’s policies, practices and prejudices determine the list of Government policies?

We don’t see how it doesn’t.

It may be useful to begin with an NHS analogy. It’s a gross simplification, but it carries the necessary meaning.

There are multiple hospitals in Manchester – Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, Manchester Royal Infirmary, and St Mary’s – all on the same site, with interconnected modern buildings, all built at the same time. Why are there three hospitals? Because when the new buildings were constructed, and everything was consolidated on one site, though treating them as a single hospital would seem most sensible, that would (to many people) effectively be “closing two hospitals”. Hence, there are three.

What about Government departments?

In a Britain with a single government department, what is currently the Home Office – with its particular approach (covered elsewhere) – will go on the rampage across all areas of everything.

For how will weaker policy goals be defended against stronger ones? “It’s a matter of national security, don’t you know…”

Clause 38 of the Digital Economy Bill “solves” this problem by simply ignoring it – those with the highest bureaucratic power will win the fight; we’ve seen this already with the Home Office demanding the names and addresses (p16) of patients – and it’s quite clear they’d have grabbed everything if they’d wanted to.

In this context, with the Digital Strategy of DCMS, and Cabinet Office’s warmed-over Government Transformation Strategy in play, what should happen to make the world they’re trying to build safe?

The greatest concerns must be with the Transformation Strategy; the current “ethics framework” suggested by GDS (the part of Cabinet Office responsible for writing the Strategy) is so flawed, for example, that it suggests a Privacy Impact Assessment can fit on a single sheet of A4 – the self-same strategy used to justify care.data, relying on NHS England’s public statements. Thus far, the country has been saved from a systemic collapse in trust by the fact that this “ethics framework” isn’t actually used by departments.

So what’s the alternative? A citizen view of Government.

Government insists it should be able to copy our data – whatever it wants, wherever and whenever it likes – including to its commercial partners, e.g. Google (or rather, Alphabet) DeepMind and Palantir, for whatever policy whim catches the interest of any particular official. Proportionality and public acceptance are irrelevant; these are not what the civil service is set up to do.

As we saw with DeepMind at the Royal Free Hospital, one person with power can torpedo years of careful and diligent work in order to meet their own short-term, narrow perspective, self-interested goals.

The single Government department makes this worse, if left unaddressed. What should replace it is a citizen view of Government.

This conversation has never been had. The discussions that have been facilitated were designed to get to the pre-conceived end state of the Cabinet Office. As such, the answer was given and civil society time was wasted on a ‘debate’ that was entirely pointless; any wider opportunity to improve the use of data in Government through the Digital Economy Bill was lost.

As an example, well-defined APIs might work for departments – but if departmental silos weaken (as is the explicit goal: “to remove barriers to data sharing”) then things begins to fail. Citizens should not have to rely on how Government talks to itself.

The start of the conversation has to be with complete transparency to citizens – with the likes of Verify and public bodies being accountable to the citizens they work for. Citizens can now be shown what data is required for their transactions, and from where it will be accessed, and why. Operational decisions should inform democratic debates, both by policy makers and citizens who wish to engage in democratic debates about the services that affect them.

Civil servants all work for the Crown and not the public – whatever ‘flavour’ of Government is in power – and this may be a tension that needs consideration. What happens when the political will meets the public won’t? How is trust in institutions maintained?

Because without action, continued secrecy and the drip drip of cockup will undermine all trust.

This works in practice

Fortunately, some NHS GPSoC IT Providers (the data processors who provide IT systems to your GP) have taken the lead in fixing the systems from within the system. How many decades will it take Whitehall to catch up?

We have already demonstrated what this looks like – with Verify and other tools.

Rather than a “single government department”, the principle should be a “Citizen View of Government” – where every service a citizen has touched can be seen, with accountability for how they used data and why. This would make Government accountable to the citizen, as it should be – without the citizen having to understand the intricacies of how Government works.

In a “Citizen View” world, whether Government is one Department or many doesn’t matter as much. If civil servants want to justify access to data, they can – but they must be aware that citizens will be told what data and why, and might become unhappy about it if the reasons aren’t just.

Any Government that fails tell its citizens what it is doing and why, or which doesn’t really want them to know, will not be wanted in return – as the EU discovered with Brexit. This is what the open policy making process should have prepared the groundwork for; the price of that failure keeps going up as digital continues its march.

Unless we wish to treat data about human beings with less care than we treat the data about carcasses in our food supply chain, ‘Globalisation 2.0’ will be based on registers and code – determining risk and eligibility for consumers and for regulators. This simply does not square with a world of copying data; it can only work in a world of APIs to data where there is a lawful, published case for each access, grounded in fundamental accountability to citizens about their data.

It is obvious that data about the food we eat should not be locked in a filing cabinet in Whitehall. It should be equally obvious that “taking back control” shouldn’t mean giving every civil servant a copy of all the data on every citizen.


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  1. Pingback: What does a Citizen’s View of Government look like? | infinite ideas machine

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