UCL News


Lack of government data-sharing hindering social mobility research

20 March 2015

Better sharing of routinely collected data could accelerate progress towards improving social mobility and reducing child poverty, as well as generate significant financial savings, according to a new UCL report published today.


The report, authored by Dr Dean Machin (UCL Philosophy) for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, examines the ways in which data can be better used to inform public policy - and the barriers currently preventing this from happening.

It makes a series of recommendations which include:

  • Legislating early in the next Parliament to remove the legal barriers to data sharing
  • Urging UCAS and other non-government bodies holding important data, to share this with researchers and policy-makers.
  • Organising lobbying to ensure that the expected EU Data Protection Regulation does not inadvertently render social mobility and other important research practically impossible.
  • Extending the role of the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN)
  • Urgently initiating research to establish the public benefits of better data sharing - and to put a figure on the significant financial savings this could generate.

Report author Dr Machin said: "Administrative data collected routinely by government and other public bodies is extremely valuable to social mobility and child poverty researchers and policy-makers. It can be used to learn more about problems, as well as assess and improve policy interventions.

"But while a huge amount of data is being collected, the majority of data-sets are not linked together and most data is not shared between public bodies or accessible to researchers.

Better data sharing could help enable a better understanding of what's effective and what isn't. At the moment, we're trying to make social progress blindfolded.

Dr Dean Machin

"Currently, policies heavily rely on predictions based on small-scale academic studies, sometimes from other countries. It would be much better to base policy on our own data. Better data sharing could help enable a better understanding of what's effective and what isn't. At the moment, we're trying to make social progress blindfolded.

"To date there has been no systematic attempt to quantify the total amount of public money that might be saved or spent more efficiently through greater use of administrative data. In an age of austerity, this is a missed opportunity we cannot afford."

Examples of administrative databases are SureStart (collecting data from ages 0-4), the National Pupil Database (covering all UK school pupils aged 5-19) and UCAS (covering the transition from school to university).

If researchers had the ability to access and link data from sources such as these it would enable them to more effectively answer questions such as whether the increased investment in early years' services has improved social mobility, or whether the pupil premium has boosted university applications.

The report looks at the problems around data-sharing, acknowledging the legal complexities that can act as obstacles and examining other key institutional and cultural factors at play.

Dr Machin added: "Privacy concerns are extremely important, but improving data-sharing is not about compromising privacy - it's about accessing and analysing data more securely. We must educate the public about the benefits."

Many organisations are subject to statutory prohibitions about the basis on which they share data - some laws only permit data sharing for certain reasons. The law in this area is complex and often institutions are unclear about what they are permitted to do. Data-sharing is not a priority for many government departments and some regard it as risky, or feel the data is theirs alone to interpret and generate findings from.

As well as making specific recommendations, the report suggests three core principles that should underpin government policy on data-sharing:

  1. Where there is a clear public benefit, and where there is a system in which data can be shared safely, data should be shared.
  2. Where legislative changes are required to realise principle one, they should be made.
  3. Given the potential benefits of data sharing, the presumption should be that all bodies that control important administrative data should share their data. Bodies should expect to justify and be held accountable for any refusals to share data.

Dr Machin worked with the Commission as part of the UCL Public Policy Placement Scheme. The scheme provides for part-time secondments of UCL researchers into policy organisations for a period of 3-6 months with the aim of providing researchers with direct experience of a policy environment, and also to enable them to support evidence-informed policymaking.



Media contact

Ruth Howells

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3845

Email: ruth.howells [at] ucl.ac.uk