Administrative data is information created when people interact with public services, such as schools, the NHS, the courts or the benefits system, and collated by government. These public bodies must keep records of these interactions for operational purposes: to enable them to carry out their day-to-day work, to monitor and improve their performance, and keep providing services in an effective way.
For instance, the Department for Education (in England and Wales) collects data on educational attainment to identify schools and subjects where improvement is needed; HMRC collects data on tax and incomes to assess compliance and inform tax policies; and the NHS records details of admissions and appointments to monitor trends in hospital activity. Administrative data also includes basic information about people in the UK, such as notifications of births, deaths and marriages, the electoral register, and national censuses.
Across the UK as a whole, administrative data is currently a largely untapped, but information-rich, resource. This wealth of data, the majority of which was not originally created for research but as a by-product of government services, has the potential to create important knowledge, providing powerful insights into our society and in turn pointing to areas where change is needed.
Why is better access to administrative data so important for research?
Access to anonymised administrative data is extremely valuable to research, facilitating a far more accurate and comprehensive picture of UK society than is possible without it. Unlike survey data, for example, which is limited to those who choose to take part and can therefore mean some groups of people are underrepresented, administrative datasets include information on everyone who comes into contact with government and public services.
However, the greatest benefits from the use of administrative data for research come when data created by one government department or public service is linked to that from others. Linking data from across government is the essence of ADR UK’s work. It enables researchers to study how different aspects of life interact with one another, to enhance our understanding of UK society and where change is needed to improve lives.
In addition, academics and other researchers spend significant amounts of time and money on primary data collection. Access to administrative data can therefore be a major time and money saver, allowing researchers to use rich data that has already been collected and to invest greater resources elsewhere in the research process.
What is the legal framework?
In 2017 the Digital Economy Act provided a legal gateway for researchers to access government data in a secure way. Specifically, under Section 64 of the Act – ‘Disclosure of information for research purposes’ – it is stated that deidentified data held by a public authority in connection with the authority’s functions may be disclosed to another person for the purpose of research. This is, however, subject to meeting certain stated criteria, including the assurance that a person’s identity is not specified in any information disclosed for research.
At ADR UK we work hard to make sure that these criteria are met; the ethical and responsible use of data, keeping the interests of the public at its core, is key to how we operate. You can find out more about how we take care of the data we make available for research and ensure it is only used for projects in the public interest on the Ethics & Responsibility page.
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If you are a policy maker or data holder interested in how ADR UK can help generate impact for you and the communities you serve, please get in touch.