The digital era represents efficiency and personalised services. Citizens not only expect it, they demand it. The emerging challenge for public agencies is gaining the insights needed to offer efficient personalised services. When it comes to maintaining the social licence for sharing personal information amongst public agencies, the social contract with citizens must include a mutual obligation based on trust in how personal data is collected and used.

A basic principle of public policy can be expressed in a simple statement: “Public service is a public trust.” But if history tells us anything, public trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.

Paradoxically in the digital age, people tend to place more trust in the commercial sector over the government. For example, we freely give online retailers our address, phone numbers and credit card information. We allow them to track what products we browse, even when there are concerns about how this information is used. We also agree for them to store this information, so that it’s easier and quicker to make future transactions. Why? Because the value returned is realised through more personalised and efficient services.

Based on this thinking, people’s lack of trust in public digital services would seem to be matter of risk outweighing value, real or perceived.

The paradox of public trust

A recent Accenture global citizen survey found that 62 percent of citizens expect public service organisations to use innovative technologies and solutions to improve service delivery while driving down cost.i One in three cite personalized public services as a top priority. Yet, they don’t trust how agencies use their personal information. This same survey showed that 78 percent of citizens want governments to do more to keep personal data private and secure.ii

In a similar survey by the Australian National University, over 90 percent of people agreed that government should use the data within government to target resources to those who need it most.iii However, over 45 percent disagreed with the statement that “government is open and honest about how data is collected, used and shared.”iv This is evidence of a clear mismatch between people’s expectations of government and their level of trust.

Government agencies look to new technologies to help bridge this gap and keep pace in the digital era. For example, over 40 percent of citizens favour the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in protecting data, reducing fraud and delivering better public services.v Moreover, 62 percent are willing to share biometric data, such as fingerprints, with government to get more personalised

These results show that the bar for service delivery is high, and public sector agencies need to look beyond compliance. Instead, they need to focus on the value proposition on offer by recognising and interpreting citizen expectations and ensuring that the value returned outweighs the risk.

Consider a country like Australia, for example, that has publicly-funded, universal health insurance. In order to continually improve the system and policies, there is a reasonable expectation for people to share relevant information about themselves with the government. But there are mutual obligations. If citizens want the best care from the health system, the government needs some of their information, albeit de-identified, for better health policy and funding allocations.

Leveraging digital data and associated new technology can transform the way agencies shape policy, serve citizens and ultimately deliver social outcomes. Meeting the common good through shared personal data is the basis for revising the social contract for the digital age.

Leveraging digital data and associated new technology can transform the way agencies shape policy, serve citizens and ultimately deliver social outcomes.

4 steps to building digital trust

The social contract is a cornerstone for managing the relationship between a government and the people. And the legitimacy of government is dependent on an adherence to principles of ethical behaviour when using personal data.

Here are four steps that public sector leaders can consider when revising the social contract for the digital age:

  1. Recognise trust as your currency
  2. Trust in government is the necessary foundation for digital engagement, voluntary compliance and data sharing. Creating trust in the digital era depends on:

    • Keeping personal information secure
    • Using personal data for personal benefit
    • Giving reasonable and informed consent to use personal data for the public good
    • Informing citizens of how their data is used
    • Curating data to ensure accuracy and relevance
  3. Accept the data ecosystem as your friend
  4. The true benefits of data are only realized when shared and aggregated. Siloed information sitting in the hands of multiple public agencies fuels mistrust. To drive social outcomes, agencies need to establish ongoing data relationships and proactively share data, with transparency, across the ecosystem.

  5. Embrace, not avoid, the challenges
  6. Public policy is a complex web of legislation, process and culture. But these are not excuses for inaction. When using data, it’s important to acknowledge these challenges and establish approaches for dealing with them in the most pragmatic and effective manner. Transparent and informed public debate will contribute to the trust dividend.

    A significant challenge to the social contract for data sharing is managing compliance. Trust can be maintained provided data sharing is not used in a way that infringes on the rights of people do the right thing. People expect their governments to ensure public monies are used according to the law and public trust is weakened if no action is seen to be taken against those taking undue advantage. At the same time people expect agencies to be restrained in taking advantage of the power imbalance that rests heavily in the government’s favour through access to multiple data sources.

  7. Bestow “superpowers” on your staff
  8. Rather than replacing humans, new technology can give staff “superpowers” to make better decisions by providing insight into what works and what doesn’t. An important element for developing trust is for leaders and staff to fully understand how technology is used to make these decisions, but to also be able to explain it to people.

Designing the social contract for the future of public service

When it comes to using personal digital data to shape public policy, agencies need to be forthright and responsive in addressing the ambiguities and people’s concerns around data use. This entails more transparency in how data is used to optimise the user experience, more choices to the extent data is used, enabling people to exercise their rights to give and withdraw consent to use their data, and more proactive interactions with citizens to enhance their individual experiences. These are the essential ingredients for building trust and making the sharing of digital data a component of a revised social contract for the digital age.

i Accenture. 2017. Public Service Global Citizen Survey.

ii Ibid

iii Biddle, N., Edwards, B., Gray, M., McEachern, S. 2018. Public attitudes towards data governance in Australia. CSRM Working Paper 12/2018, Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University.

iv Ibid

v Accenture. 2018. Public Service Citizen Survey.

vi Ibid

Brian Lee-Archer

Managing Director – Consulting, Health & Public Service, ANZ


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