At this unsettling time of economic disruption and uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to ensure public sector services are being delivered efficiently and effectively. Delivering such services within ever-tightening budgets can be challenging at the best of times, but with increasing scrutiny from the public and the regulators, ethics has to play its part in service design.

In our last update, we brought you the results of our recent citizen research. In asking over 1,000 UK citizens their thoughts on trust in government services, we discovered that there is some concern around the capturing and use of data amongst Scottish citizens. The research also showed that over half of Scottish citizens don’t know what personal data government organisations collect about them.

Since then, we’ve been carrying out a series of in-depth interviews with government decision makers (central and devolved) to find out how digital ethics is perceived and acted upon. And the findings are promising – government organisations have really started to take action on digital ethics.

During our interviews we uncovered many shining examples of good governance materialising. One particular area of development was an emerging awareness of the importance of people and culture in embedding ethics within government organisations. 

But the awareness isn’t wide-ranging. Our report shows that while we’re seeing more maturity in data ethics, digital ethics is less mature. It’s great news that data ethics has certainly started to permeate UK government organisations in ways that suggest these organisations are starting to recognise their importance. However, looking at the broader ethical implications of digital, and weaving digital ethics into service design will help drive better outcomes for citizens. 

The research found that there’s a greater awareness of the important relationship between citizens and their data, which has helped advance data ethics. Data sharing is seen as essential to creating public good but is still a challenge. And there’s certainly more to be done to ensure that compliance with data protection laws is not the endpoint of ethical approaches to data use. 

During the research we also found that the most mature organisations didn’t describe defined approaches to either digital or data ethics. Creating digital ethics strategies provides clarity on what is important, identifies material risks and opportunities related to digital technology and data use and drives more joined-up, effective approaches. 

There are still important questions regarding the responsibility for digital ethics strategy in public sector organisations, however. There is also a lack of clarity on where such policy would be defined. As organisations mature it is vital they set their own digital ethics strategies and take care to recognise that the ethical considerations they must consider may not stop at their own organisational boundary.

Overall, the signs from our research are promising, with increasing emphasis on the importance of digital ethics. While there is some way to go, it’s great to see government organisations committed to their ever-evolving journey to ethical service design.

Watch out for the full report on our findings from this in-depth government research in the coming weeks.