Risk identification and management for the research use of government administrative data

Paper by Elizabeth Shepherd, Anna Sexton, Oliver Duke-Williams, and Alexandra Eveleigh: “Government administrative data have enormous potential for public and individual benefit through improved educational and health services to citizens, medical research, environmental and climate interventions and exploitation of scarce energy resources. Administrative data is usually “collected primarily for administrative (not research) purposes by government departments and other organizations for the purposes of registration, transaction and record keeping, during the delivery of a service” such as health care, vehicle licensing, tax and social security systems (https://esrc.ukri.org/funding/guidance-for-applicants/research-ethics/useful-resources/key-terms-glossary/). Administrative data are usually distinguished from data collected for statistical use such as the census. Unlike administrative records, they do not provide evidence of activities and generally lack metadata and context relating to provenance. Administrative data, unlike open data, are not routinely made open or accessible, but access can be provided only on request to named researchers for specified research projects through research access protocols that often take months to negotiate and are subject to significant constraints around re-use such as the use of safe havens. Researchers seldom make use of freedom of information or access to information protocols to access such data because they need specific datasets and particular levels of granularity and an ability to re-process data, which are not made generally available. This study draws on research undertaken by the authors as part of the Administrative Data Research Centre in England (ADRC-E). The research examined perspectives on the sharing, linking and re-use (secondary use) of administrative data in England, viewed through three analytical themes: trust, consent and risk. This study presents the analysis of the identification and management of risk in the research use of government administrative data and presents a risk framework. Risk management (i.e. coordinated activities that allow organizations to control risks, Lemieux, 2010) enables us to think about the balance between risk and benefit for the public good and for other stakeholders. Mitigating activities or management mechanisms used to control the identified risks depend on the resources available to implement the options, on the risk appetite or tolerance of the community and on the cost and likely effectiveness of the mitigation. Mitigation and risk do not work in isolation and should be holistically viewed by keeping the whole information infrastructure in balance across the administrative data system and between multiple stakeholders.

This study seeks to establish a clearer picture of risk with regard to government administrative data in England. It identifies and categorizes the risks arising from the research use of government administrative data. It identifies mitigating risk management activities, linked to five key stakeholder communities and discusses the locus of responsibility for risk management actions. The identification of the risks and of mitigation strategies is derived from the viewpoints of the interviewees and associated documentation; therefore, they reflect their lived experience. The five stakeholder groups identified from the data are as follows: individual researchers; employers of researchers; wider research community; data creators and providers and data subjects and the broader public. The primary sections of the study, following the methodology and research context, set out the seven identified types of risk events in the research use of administrative data, present a stakeholder mapping of the communities in this research affected by the risks and discuss the findings related to managing and mitigating the risks identified. The conclusion presents the elements of a new risk framework to inform future actions by the government data community and enable researchers to exploit the power of administrative data for public good….(More)”.