Documents to download

Public sector data refers to information generated and collected by public sector bodies, such as government departments, local authorities, police forces, the NHS, and schools. Public sector bodies share data with each other or with external organisations for a variety of purposes, for example, to detect fraud, identify vulnerable people, or build infrastructure. Public sector bodies may also share data with contractors or researchers. Some public sector bodies make data freely available for anyone to access.

It is widely agreed that sharing good quality public sector data, both within the public sector and externally, can improve public sector services and benefit the economy and society. Many stakeholders, including the Government, have highlighted that public sector data are not shared effectively and that their value is currently underexploited. In September 2020, the Government published its National Data Strategy setting out plans to “unlock the power of data” in the UK, including the role and opportunities for public sector data.

In September 2021, the Government opened a consultation on its proposals to reform the UK’s data protection regime, which would affect sharing of public sector data. Stakeholders have welcomed proposals to clarify legislation, however some have raised concerns that the proposals may reduce safeguards around the use of data. Many experts say better guidance, more transparency, and use of data intermediaries could help address challenges and concerns associated with sharing public sector data.

Key points:

  • Legal provisions and restrictions for sharing public sector data are given in the Data Protection Act 2018, UK GDPR, and the Digital Economy Act 2017. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is responsible for regulating data sharing and providing guidance.
  • Once a legal basis for sharing data has been established data may be shared by: direct data transfer between organisations; providing secure points where data can be accessed for research and analysis; publishing data so they are publicly available.
  • Societal benefits of sharing data between public sector bodies include the ability to identify vulnerable individuals and families. For example, the ‘child protection information sharing project’ facilitates data sharing between social services and parts of the NHS to assess a child’s risk of abuse or neglect.
  • The economic value of public sector data is challenging to measure; however, a 2013 Government-commissioned assessment of public sector data estimated its value to the UK economy at £1.8 billion.
  • Technical barriers to sharing public sector data include poor quality data, incompatible datasets and data management systems, and concerns about the security of data processing.
  • Additional barriers arise when organisations are averse to or confused about data sharing. Technical, basic, and broader skills related to data must be improved across the public sector to reduce barriers to data sharing.
  • Data linkage (where multiple datasets referring to the same entities are combined) can provide insights that allow for a greater understanding of societal trends. Insights derived from data linkage can be used to develop and target services. However, some experts have highlighted the risk that decisions made about an individual based on linked data may be unfair.
  • Privacy and human rights experts have expressed concerns that data collection involving both private and public sector bodies can lead to increased surveillance of citizens. Public concerns around government surveillance can decrease engagement with public services.
  • A central public concern is the trustworthiness of public sector data sharing practices. A 2017 survey of 1071 UK adults by Deloitte found that 44% of respondents did not trust government organisations with their personal data.
  • Recently, there has been an increasing emphasis on the role of data intermediaries in supporting organisations or individuals to find, access, share, and control data. There is scope for wider adoption of data intermediaries to improve the effectiveness and trustworthiness of public sector data sharing.
  • Emerging privacy-enhancing technologies offer new ways to mitigate the risks of data breaches and misuse.
  • Experts agree that being clear, open, and honest with individuals about how, why, and with whom their data is shared is essential for building trustworthy public sector data sharing practices. Suggested ways to boost transparency include publishing data sharing agreements and increasing public engagement.


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Aidan Peppin, Ada Lovelace Institute*
  • Octavia Reeve, Ada Lovelace Institute*
  • Emma Gordon, Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK)*
  • Rosie French, Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK)*
  • Shayda Kashef, Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK)*
  • Paul Hodgson, Greater London Authority
  • Theo Blackwell, Greater London Authority
  • Viv Adams, Information Commissioners Office (ICO)*
  • David Frank, Microsoft Ltd
  • Glen Robinson, Microsoft Ltd*
  • Sonia Cooper, Microsoft Ltd
  • Dr Marion Oswald, Northumbria University*
  • Dr Rachel Allsopp, Northumbria University*
  • Rachel Higgins, Ordnance Survey
  • Dr Mahlet (“Milly”) Zimeta, The Open Data Institute*
  • Jason Riches, UK Statistics Authority (UKSA)
  • Ross Young, UK Statistics Authority (UKSA)
  • Simon Whitworth, UK Statistics Authority (UKSA)
  • Dr Jessica Montgomery, University of Cambridge*
  • Sam Gilbert, University of Cambridge*
  • Dr Emily Griffiths, University of Manchester*
  • Dr Carissa Véliz, University of Oxford*
  • Prof Sir Martin Landray, University of Oxford
  • Dr Jiahong Chen, University of Sheffield*
  • Prof Felix Ritchie, University of the West of England*
  • Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO)*
  • Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS)*
  • Members of the POST Board*

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

Documents to download

Related posts