Unlocking the value of data - public engagement: literature review

This report highlights the findings from a literature review commissioned by the Scottish Government on public engagement regarding the use of public sector data by or with the private sector over the last 10 years both in the UK and internationally.


The studies included in this review suggest that deliberative and dialogue based qualitative public engagement methods enable the identification of more nuanced public perspectives around private sector use of public sector data than (especially quantitative) methods that generally collect publics’ spontaneous attitudes or ‘gut reactions’ towards the topic. Deliberative methods can also enable a consensus to be built among people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. This is connected with the finding that there is a low level of public awareness of private sector use of public sector data and this low awareness has an impact on the spontaneous reactions and views that publics have towards the topic. Publics tend to express negative ‘gut reactions’ towards private sector organisations in general and towards them accessing public sector data in particular, and these negative reactions are influenced by presumptions about the motives that drive private sector interest in public sector data: publics express concern that private sector organisations are motivated by commercial interests and profiteering rather than by public benefit. However, when publics are given more information about the topic and opportunities to discuss and reflect on it in more depth over the course of deliberative and dialogue based public engagement activities, their views tend to become more nuanced, and many change their minds towards more positive views.

The above is also connected to the finding, reported in many of the included studies, that publics tend to spontaneously express the view that private sector use of public sector data is undesirable or unacceptable. However, when people’s views are unpacked and probed in more depth, and when more information about the topic and opportunities to reflect on it are provided, publics actually tend to be supportive of private sector access to public sector data, subject to certain conditions and caveats. These include, more notably, the rationale and motives for private sector use of the data, which can matter more than who is using it. When private sector involvement can be shown to have high potential to deliver public benefit, publics tend to find it acceptable, but when publics suspect that the rationale is mostly private benefit or profits, they tend to find it undesirable or unacceptable. There are, however, related hierarchies of acceptability depending on the kind of private sector organisation and type of data involved. When companies are seen to be working (at least to a large extent) towards public benefit, their involvement is perceived as more acceptable, but when companies are seen to be working in ways that are perceived as contrary to public benefit, their involvement is seen as unacceptable. Publics also generally perceive the use anonymised and aggregate data as most acceptable, but they are more concerned about identifiable, personal, and sensitive data.

Across the included documents, public benefit was the most prevalent theme raised by publics, and indeed, the acceptability of private sector use of public sector data was largely conditional upon the extent to which public benefit could be realised from it. The ability of private sector use of public sector data not only generally trumped all other concerns, but publics were also willing to allow some private benefit or profits for private sector organisations as long as private benefits are not driving motive, and so long as public benefit outweighs private benefits or profit. They also wanted to see convincing evidence and justifications that public benefit will or could in fact be realised. The exact meaning or definitions of public benefit were variable and contested across the different studies, including benefits to individuals, specific groups, society as a whole, and, in the UK, to the NHS specifically via avenues such as cost savings and outcome and service improvements. Despite this, it is clear that the ability to deliver demonstratable public benefit, broadly conceived, is a central consideration for private sector use of public sector data. Relatedly, the included studies suggest that benefit-sharing is a key consideration for publics, and people want to see a fair distribution of benefits from private sector access to public sector data that are realised across the population, including in terms of profit sharing and reinvestment. Especially with private sector use of NHS data in UK, publics wish to see a return of investment and cost recovery for the NHS.

The issue of public trust and distrust in different private (and public) sector organisations was also a key issue across the different studies, and connected to publics’ views on acceptability, public benefit and benefit-sharing. Publics’ negative ‘gut reactions’, as well as many of their key enduring concerns, were linked to the level of trust and distrust they had towards different organisations, and many studies found both spontaneous and enduring distrust in private sector organisations’ motives, which were perceived by many as profit driven. However, when public sector organisations were centrally involved in directing and controlling private sector uses and access to the data, public trust in the whole process was much higher, because publics generally expressed significantly higher levels of trust in public sector organisations. They generally presumed that public sector organisations’ motives are principally driven by public benefit, and that public sector organisations would consequently work to protect public interest against any possible competing private interests. In the UK, this was especially the case when the NHS was involved: publics generally expressed very high levels of trust in the NHS and believed that if the NHS retains control of the data in the context of private sector partnerships, it will protect public interest and ensure public benefit. The few included studies focussing on the US showed less willingness to trust state/government agencies than is the case in the UK.

Oversight, governance, and safeguards were widely reported as key issues of public interest and concern in private sector use of public sector data, and publics generally wanted and expected to see mechanisms in place that would govern how data is used. While the exact nature of what oversight, governance and safeguards should look like was contested and varied across different studies, generally, publics wanted either a governing body or an oversight committee consisting of different stakeholders to take responsibility for overseeing how public sector data is shared and used, or they wanted public sector organisations, such as the NHS, to hold this responsibility. They also expected there to be transparency and accountability over private sector uses of public sector data, including ways for publics to access and monitor how and why public sector data is used by private companies, as well as rigorous safety and security arrangements, including to avoid data falling in the ‘wrong hands.’ While consent and confidentiality were also raised, public views on this tended to be conditioned by the nature of other safeguards that were in place to govern how data is used and protected. Overall, there was a suggestion that having oversight, governance, and safeguard mechanisms in place to begin with may be more important than the exact nature of these safeguards when it comes to public trust in and acceptability of private sector use of public sector data.

Many of the included studies identified that publics wish there to be public engagement and involvement around private sector use of public sector data, but there were differing views and perspectives on what this should look like, at what level it should be undertaken, and what publics should be involved in exactly. Some wanted active public involvement in decision making about data use across different levels while others preferred involvement only in some areas like agenda setting and development or governance arrangements, or only in making decisions about contested ‘grey area’ cases. Despite these differences, overall there was a general desire for public engagement and involvement around this policy area.

Importantly, across the included studies, public views and perspectives were not homogenous, rather the views and perspectives of different people were shaped and influenced by a range of intersecting demographic and attitudinal attributes that had a bearing on how individuals perceive and feel about private sector use of public sector data. This serves as a reminder that while one can identify trends and patterns across publics, ‘the public’ is not a homogenous entity but rather composed of multiple publics, which in turn are composed of multiple groups and individuals who may have different perspectives, concerns, or areas of emphasis. Dialogic or deliberative public engagement is able to bring such difference together to reflect and debate, enabling some kind of consensus or emergent set of views or positions.


Email: christopher.bergin@gov.scot

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