Data Sharing in the Public Sector

Dan RhodesDan Rhodes
Written by
Dan Rhodes
April 2, 2024

Loved this article? Share it with your network:


Data sharing plays a pivotal role in shaping public sector operations, policies, and services. As we reflect on the impact of regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and evolving frameworks in the United Kingdom, it becomes imperative to assess the balance between fostering innovation and safeguarding individual rights. This article delves into the landscape of data sharing within the UK public sector, examining key regulations, recent developments, and proposed amendments. By navigating through the intricacies of data governance and ethical considerations, I aim to uncover the challenges, opportunities, and strategies crucial for building public trust and advancing responsible data practices.

Regulatory Framework for Data Sharing

Protecting individual privacy, ensuring transparency, and promoting responsibly data management practices are at the heart of the current UK data sharing regulations. The following are some of the key regulatory regimes in the UK:

1. Data Protection Act 2018 and UK GDPR: regulate the processing of personal data, including data sharing between public sector organisations. They outline principles such as lawfulness, fairness, and transparency, as well as requirements for obtaining consent, data minimization, and data security.

2. Digital Economy Act 2017: aims to facilitate data sharing between public authorities for specific purposes, such as improving public service delivery, research, and policy formulation. It provides a legal gateway for data sharing and outlines safeguards and codes of practice. It required the development of Codes of Practice that set out rules and guidelines on how data sharing should be carried out.

3. National Data Strategy: Launched in 2020, the UK's National Data Strategy sets out a framework for unlocking the value of data across the economy and society, including in the public sector. It emphasises data sharing, interoperability, and ethical data use.

4. Data Ethics Framework: Developed by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, this framework provides guidance on the responsible and ethical use of data, including principles such as fairness, accountability, and transparency.

5. Digital Service Standards (GDS): GDS established a set of standards and guidelines for designing and delivering digital services in the public sector, including principles related to data sharing, interoperability, and user centred design.

6. Secure Data Transfer and Cloud Services: The National Cyber Security Centre and GDS provide guidance and approved services for secure data transfer and cloud computing in the public sector, ensuring data protection and compliance.

7. Open Data and Transparency: The UK government has initiatives and policies that promote the release of non-sensitive public sector data as open data, such as the Open Government Licence and portal, to increase transparency and enable data-driven innovation.

It's important to note data sharing and digital services in the UK public sector also involve sector-specific regulations and policies, such as those related to healthcare, education, or law enforcement. Additionally, regional variations may exist within the UK's devolved administrations. Overall, the Digital Economy Act 2017 and related regulatory frameworks represented a shift towards enabling responsible and secure data sharing within the public sector, while also emphasizing the need for privacy protection, ethical guidelines, and public trust in data practices.

Impact of GDPR and Proposed Amendments

May 2018 marked a seismic shift in the landscape of data protection and privacy for organisations operating in the UK and beyond as they faced this paradigm shift in how to approach data protection which required the overhaul of data governance. Many organisations refocused their priorities to develop protective organisational cultures, advancing data silos, and adopting resistance to sharing any data.  Whilst there is no doubt that GDPR is a force for good, protecting personal rights, it's not immune from criticism. The UK government, after Brexit, recognised it and is considering proposing several potential amendments or changes to the data protection regime. However, it's important to note these proposals are still under consideration, and the final amendments, if any, are yet to be determined. The following are some of the key areas where the UK has expressed interest in making changes:

  • Introducing a Risk-Based Approach: The UK has proposed adopting a more risk-based and flexible approach to data protection, focusing regulatory efforts on areas of highest risk and reducing burdens on low-risk activities.
  • Aligning with Other Frameworks: There have been discussions around better aligning the UK's data protection regime with other international frameworks, such as those of the United States or Asia-Pacific regions, to facilitate cross-border data flows.
  • Enhancing Innovation and Research Provisions: The UK has expressed interest in enhancing provisions related to data processing for research and innovation purposes, potentially providing more flexibility in this area.
  • Reforming Data Subject Access Requests (DSARs): The government has indicated a desire to reform the rules around DSARs, which can be costly and burdensome for organisations to handle.
  • Clarifying International Data Transfers: There is interest in providing clearer guidance and potentially reforming the rules around international data transfers, which have been a source of complexity and uncertainty for businesses.
  • Relaxing Data Protection Impact Assessments: There have been suggestions to make Data Protection Impact Assessments less prescriptive and reduce the burden on organisations, particularly for low-risk processing activities.
  • Reducing Cookie Consent Requirements: The UK government has proposed simplifying the cookie consent requirements, which are currently seen as overly burdensome for businesses and frustrating for users.

It's important to note that any significant changes to the UK's data protection regime will need to be carefully balanced against maintaining an adequate level of protection to ensure continued free flow of personal data with the European Union and other jurisdictions that have deemed the UK's regime as providing essentially equivalent protection.

Of course, citizens may have valid concerns about privacy, security, and the potential misuse of their personal data therefore building public trust in data-sharing initiatives within the public sector is crucial for their success and acceptance. 

Building Public Trust in Data Sharing

To address these concerns and foster trust, the public sector can employ several strategies:

1. Transparency and Open Communication:

  • Proactively disclose information about data-sharing initiatives, their objectives, and the safeguards in place to protect individual privacy and data security.
  • Use clear and accessible language to explain data-sharing practices, ensuring citizens understand how their data is being used and for what purposes.
  • Publish regular reports or updates on data-sharing activities, highlighting the benefits achieved and addressing any concerns or issues that arise.

2. Public Consultation and Engagement:

  • Involve citizens and stakeholder groups early in the process of developing data-sharing initiatives and policies.
  • Conduct public consultations, focus groups, or stakeholder workshops to gather feedback, address concerns, and incorporate diverse perspectives.
  • Establish citizen advisory boards or committees to provide ongoing input and oversight on data-sharing practices.

3. Privacy by Design and Robust Security Measures:

  • Implement robust data protection measures, such as encryption, access controls, and anonymization techniques, to safeguard personal and sensitive data.
  • Adopt a "privacy by design" approach, ensuring that privacy considerations are embedded throughout the data lifecycle, from collection to sharing and disposal.
  • Regularly conduct security audits and assessments to identify and mitigate potential vulnerabilities or risks.

4. Public Education and Awareness Campaigns:

  • Launch public education campaigns to raise awareness about data-sharing initiatives, their benefits, and the measures in place to protect individual privacy and data security.
  • Collaborate with trusted community organisations, educational institutions, or media outlets to disseminate information and address concerns or misconceptions.

6. Demonstrating Tangible Benefits:

  • Clearly communicate the tangible benefits and positive outcomes resulting from data-sharing initiatives, such as improved public services, better policymaking, or advancements in research and innovation.
  • Showcase real-world examples and case studies of how data sharing has benefited citizens and communities.

Ethical Principles in the Generative AI era

With the regulatory landscape in constant flux and with the inroads that Artificial Intelligence is making into our workspace ethical principles should be considered in AI projects:

  • Implement robust security measures ensuring that data is collected, processed, and shared with appropriate consent and transparency.
  • Processing should be fair and non-discriminatory, ensuring that they do not perpetuate or exacerbate existing biases or inequalities. Particular attention should be paid to the potential impact on vulnerable or marginalised groups.
  • be transparent about data sharing practices, the purposes for which data is being shared, and the safeguards in place. Clear accountability mechanisms, audit trails, and grievance redressal processes should be established.
  • Data sharing should be guided by the principle of serving the public interest and providing societal benefits. The potential risks and benefits of data sharing should be carefully weighed, and data should be used to improve public services, inform policymaking, and address societal challenges.
  • Data sharing should be limited to what is necessary and proportionate for the stated purposes. Organisations should practice data minimization and ensure that data is not used for unintended or unauthorized purposes.
  • Shared data should be accurate, complete, and up to date to ensure that decisions and analyses based on it are reliable and valid. Appropriate data quality assurance processes should be in place.
  • Establish robust ethical governance frameworks, including dedicated ethics committees or advisory boards, to provide guidance and oversight on data sharing practices and ensure adherence to ethical principles.


By employing these strategies, public sector organisations can foster a culture of data sharing and incentivise collaboration. Data sharing practices will generate innovation, improve public service delivery, research, innovation, and policy formulation.  To ensure ethical and responsible data sharing, public sector organisations should develop and implement comprehensive data governance policies, provide training and awareness programs for staff, conduct regular audits, and impact assessments, and engage with stakeholders and the public to build trust and incorporate diverse perspectives.