The Chief Executive of the DVLA Oliver Morley contacted me via Twitter today following my suggestion that DVLA should seek to introduce an ethical governance structure to oversee its data provision. I do not mean by this that DVLA is un-ethical, but that external guidance and lay input into data governance will help maintain public confidence.
I am happy to expand on my tweet and to do so in a way that I am happy to be corrected if there are structures out there I can’t see. This post is written in a personal capacity and written rapidly so may contain some errors.
DVLA is an epic, heroic even part of Britain’s public service infrastructure ‘one of the UK’s biggest multi-channel service organisations, with over 45 million customers, 68 million digital transactions, and six billion pounds in revenue collected for the UK Government’ DVLA creates and looks after truly colossal quantities of data about drivers. As well as taxing cars, this information is the bedrock of a substantial enforcement and security industry. Everything from private parking contractors through the police’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition system that stores over 7 billion car movements and is an important tool in the fight against crime. A Commons Committee, as is their way, was recently critical of some aspects of the DVLA approach to data sharing.
Data created and stored by DVLA for tax and regulatory purposes is used in all manner of private and police and security agency purposes. There is special provision in law for bodies to ask DVLA for this data so that they can use it in motoring related businesses, DVLA assess what is ‘reasonable cause’ and the Information Commissioner’s Office has a handy web page about that. And DVLA has an admirable Q&A document and DVLA has an ‘Information Charter‘, updated in January 2014 which sets out (page 6) an almost entirely internal governance structure for DVLAs information.
What concerns me is that there isn’t enough lay input into DVLA’s decision making process around data sharing. In an article ‘Don’t let the data revolution de-rail itself’, written for the Labour Party’s Digital Government Review on which I am a non-partisan expert advisor, I set out my concerns that modern capability and opportunity with data can have so great an impact on people’s lives, within a legal system that is decades out of date that large data aggregators and providers need to create an ethical framework within which they operate, as well as follow the law. Or to put it another way, ‘the law permits me to do this, but is it right?’ Data has the potential to be a huge force for the good in society, but only if the public’s confidence is maintained. And we are approaching a point after a series of data disasters where the law is not sufficient to maintain confidence.
As a former civil servant I am quite used to following the law in administration and working within the political framework of the government of the day. In the english Common law system administrative law is light touch (relative to say France) and where judgment and interpretation is required to set the law in context there is a tradition of lay involvement (lay magistrates for instance). And in more modern areas the establishment of ethical governance structures – particularly in medicine and academia. One of the most sophisticated examples is the composition of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which grapples with the toughest ethical challenges . Also advisory groups of experts are common place in the English system.
I suggest that DVLAs data is so momentous and so significant in society that it needs ethical governance independent of its own executive and of its governing politicians. This governance would give the public continued confidence that DVLA is handling its data well and help DVLA assess ‘reasonable cause’. DVLA should create an independent data ethics advisory group with people such as a:
selection of DVLAs customers as people in their own right, not as representatives of lobby groups
a non driver
doctor with a background in medical ethics
data scientist who is a strong communicator
person who has had their DVLA data misused
representative of the ICO
identity assurance expert
road safety charity
one of DVLAs non-executive board members
DVLA chief executive.
This body should have all data publication requests and referrals sent to it prior to DVLA making their decision within the law. And the papers from DVLA to the group, the groups opinions and minutes should all be published. If Mr Morley should wish to comment below, I would welcome that.
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