The NHS’s care.data program failed because of a lack of trust, now that Open Banking is proving we can trust technology to share are most sensitive data, the public sector should take a lesson from fintech
‘The productivity puzzle’ is one of the greatest challenges facing the modern UK economy. Since the Financial Crisis 10 years ago, productivity growth has stalled. Consequently, economic prosperity and living standards have suffered. Productivity stagnation is felt acutely in the public sector. This is because public finances have been severely strained since the 2008 crash and there is an increasing demand for services from an ageing population.
A 2017 Skills and Employment survey found that British staff produced 16% less than the average worker in G7 countries. The survey highlighted that British people are actually “working harder than ever before” yet do not have “the right equipment” to make them more efficient.
Whilst a challenge in the short-term, government should not be too concerned by these findings. The UK is now in its fourth industrial revolution. Innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), 5G and cloud technologies are fast becoming more widely used in the world of work and will become the right equipment to make the workforce more efficient. Like industrial revolutions of the past, much-needed productivity gains will go hand-in-hand with these technical advancements.
Researchers McKinsey have estimated that digitisation could deliver productivity improvements worth at least $1 trillion across the global public sector. In the UK, public services are already using new technology to make staff more efficient and technology such as AI is replacing repetitive tasks. For example, HMRC are using AI to search and open case files when staff answer the phone – reducing call handling times by 40%. More sophisticated AI can analyse ‘big data’ and improve decision making. In healthcare, AI is enabling interpretation of mammograms 30 times faster than humans and with greater accuracy. The government are also exploring how AI can accurately predict Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes in the hope of preventing illness and preparing the NHS for tomorrow’s needs.
However, despite progress, it is widely acknowledged that the public sector has fallen behind the private sector digitisation. In the world of instant messaging, online shopping and Amazon’s Alexa, the NHS seems almost archaic in its use of paper notes and fax machines. Indeed, there have been several widely publicised failures of government to introduce technology, including the eBorders programme and care.data (the NHS’s attempt to build a national database of patient information). A significant reason for why these attempts failed was not because of the technology itself but because of the accessibility and security of the data sitting behind the technology. That was what was needed to realise efficiency benefits.
Progress in improving accessibility and security of data in the private sector has meant that financial services have introduced innovation like Open Banking. This legislation requires all UK banks to allow consumers to easily and securely share their financial data with authorised providers. The aim of this new legislation is to not only give consumers more choice and control over how and where they keep their money but also improve efficiency and customer service within banking. For example, HSBC are now working with the fintech company Bud to give its customers access to all their bank accounts via one single app, regardless of which bank that account is held with.
To make financial data accessible, banks have created Application Programming Interfaces or APIs. An API is set of common standards which allow applications to share data without developers having to share software code or write code from scratch. These have been overlaid across banking software; in the case above, HSBC can securely and efficiently share consumers’ data with Bud to create a personalised app. In the public sector, as a recent Reform report highlighted, government has not yet created the data infrastructure to allow efficient sharing of data between multiple public services. Going forward, government should follow the example of Open Banking legislation and encourage public services to overlay APIs across data legacy systems to allow for efficient data sharing.
Data sharing not only requires the right data architecture but also public consent. Again, parallels can be drawn between Open Banking and public services. Financial data is some of the most sensitive data a company can handle, and people are concerned about sharing it; a recent YouGov survey showed that 77% of people were concerned about sharing their financial data with companies other than their main bank. These concerns stem from worries around data security. That is why Open Banking leaders have made great efforts to ensure data is encrypted, highly secure and auditable – and they have clearly communicated these steps to customers. Given that part of the reason care.data had to be abandoned was because of public worries over data privacy and security, future efforts to digitise public services should look to replicate practice like this.
Technology provides a significant opportunity to solve the enduring productivity puzzle in the public sector. To realise these benefits, public services should get the data right that sits behind this technology. Lessons should be learnt from innovation like Open Banking in the private sector. Only with the right data architecture in place, can public services become truly digitised and help build a more productive, future UK economy.
Maisie Borrows is the Research Manager at Reform think tank, a non-party aligned research group analysing technology’s role in public policy