Roundtable Insights: Building trust with citizen data

How can government departments make better use of the available data to deliver better services and create a positive feedback loop where better services encourage citizens to trust more of their data with government?

This was one of the key questions up for discussion at a closed door roundtable organised by Government Transformation Magazine in partnership with Estonian tech company Nortal.

Listen to 'Roundtable Insights: Building Trust with Citizen Data'


Nortal is responsible for having built 40% of the Estonian government's digital experience, and two of their executives - John Cheal, UK Public Sector Director and Ken Tilk, Head of Global Data and AI - were on hand to discuss the technical and cultural barriers to building trust in the government’s use of citizen data.

There are numerous examples of UK public services that have earned the trust of users - such as the NHS app, One Login and GOV.UK.

“There are pockets of excellence and examples of those really valuable small wins, but these are minuscule in comparison to how far off we are from where we need to be,” said one of the government attendees.

“It’s often said that Estonia has the edge over the UK when it comes to digital citizenship because of its small population and less sceptical population. But trust was not inherent,” argued Cheal. “It was earned through delivering high quality digital services combined with transparency around the state’s use of your personal data. There’s no reason why the UK shouldn’t be able to tackle those data silos and create a trusted citizen identity.”

The example of India's Aadhaar digital ID scheme was cited as an example of delivering transformation at scale - 1.3 billion biometric IDs issued and counting - demonstrating that population size didn't prevent largescale change.

Another government attendee noted that the problem with digital transformation in the UK, was not so much technical debt as it was organisational, cultural debt. This came in the form of both the libertarian politics of citizens and two interrelated issues in government; lack of strategic architecture and empire building.

The most repeated phrase in the conversation was, “We’re all trying to solve the same problem”. With departments facing data silos and with thousands of unique information-sharing agreements, the absence of unified interfaces exposes a lack of leadership at the top of government. “It’s like the people with the vision don’t have the power and the people with the power don’t have the vision,” said one guest.

Amidst the proliferation of these unique sharing agreements, both within the public sector and with private vendors, no decisive data-sharing strategy has been accomplished.

“All too often we spend money incurring tech debt without a collective strategy and it’s because there are too many vested interests. We need shared registers and smarter systems that can talk to each other, and that needs to be defined from the top.”

The way personal status and power are defined in the civil service, particularly at the senior level, is at the core of the slowed progress towards digital transformation initiatives like a single, digital citizen identity.

Because the status of senior leaders is defined by the number of people they manage and the size of their budget, rather than being defined by efficiencies and coordinated around delivering better citizen outcomes, leaders are incentivised to develop bulky and inefficient services.

With more people hired to elevate statuses and with digital transformation creating job insecurity, the odds are stacked against digital transformation with the current incentive structure in place.

Adapt or die

At the end of the roundtable, the guests reflected on what could be done to progress trust and transformation. As has been done in Estonia, Tilk reflected, transparency can open up a lot of doors for trust.

If citizens can see exactly how data is being used in real-time, and then communicate this real-time data use in a way that shows the government is working for them and not against them, a balance can be struck between easy, user-centric service delivery and democratic transparency that matches the UK’s democratic appetite and breaks the loop of stagnation and mistrust.

“It's adapt or die”, said one civil servant. “We know what the problems are, where we need to go and the benefits it can bring to civil servants. We have to abandon catering for people who are resistant to change, charge forward and show people how we’re going to bring people along with us. This is the only way of breaking the cycle and delivering the value needed to build that trust.”

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