It has been five years since the Digital Economy Act 2017 Research strand was passed into law and later implemented as an applied framework for the accreditation of researchers, projects, and processors. The DEA offered strong foundations for the UK Statistics Authority to define the principles and standards, under the DEA Research Codes of Practice and Accreditation criteria, to enable better use of data for the public good as well as introduce the necessary safeguards in the public interest. 

The impact of the DEA is reflected in an enhanced capability for accredited processing environments to make new data available for public good research, reinforcing the transparency and accountability of our data management activities, and fortifying our relationship of trust with the public, data suppliers and key stakeholders.  

The Research Accreditation Panel has a clear role in providing oversight of the frameworks that are used to accredit research projects, researchers and processing environments under the Digital Economy Act 2017 and the Approved Researcher gateway in the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007 (SRSA). Within that remit, significant enhancements to streamline the accreditation of researchers and projects have empowered researchers to deliver radical, timely and impactful research. This is evidenced in over 489 accredited research projects that are taking place across the UK, including key projects in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The transformative impact of the DEA has also been recognised externally as a trusted framework that removes unnecessary barriers to data access with robust safeguards. The DEA accreditation has led to adopting consistent standards across accredited trusted research environments, with invigorated interest to define and address concepts as data governance, data stewardship, and data capability more effectively.  

After the recommendation of the Research Accreditation Panel, we embarked on a mission to review the data capability elements of the DEA Accreditation framework and ensure that it is robust enough to address the challenges of the next generations of Trusted Research Environments. This time around we put more emphasis on transparency, inclusivity, and accessibility. We considered the scale of the different data processing environments across the UK, and their individual journey to maturity, developing an adaptive and more proportionate assessment framework. The set of criteria for the accreditation of data processors includes: 

  • a larger volume of more specific controls, 
  • assessment based on tangible evidence derived from best practice, 
  • consideration of inclusivity and accessibility in the services offered by TREs, 
  • support of data processors with guidance and a support service to TREs, 
  • clear maturity assessment criteria, and 
  • publish consistent performance and service metrics to reinforce transparency. 

In addition to setting clear requirements and expectations, we also changed how the maturity assessment is conducted. The new maturity assessment framework is based on the analogous relationship between maturity and trustworthiness. Hence, we incentivise data processors to demonstrate their capability to adopt consistent and proactive practices and provide a high-quality service to the wider research community. This is evidenced by less frequent audits targeting particular controls as the maturity of data processors improves. 

Understandably the transition to a new framework heralds significant change and requires effort. For this reason, we have developed detailed guidance clearly setting the expectations of the accrediting body (control framework), and the maturity assessment process (maturity assessment framework) in line with the Research Codes of Practice and Accreditation criteria. More importantly we are introducing an independent service in the UK Statistics Authority to advise data processors on the application of this framework, while bringing the auditing services in-house. 

Throughout the summer we have engaged with all accredited environments, subject matter experts and interested parties internally and externally. This equipped us with invaluable feedback and confidence to present to the Research Accreditation Panel a new data capability framework under the Digital Economy Act in September. The framework was successfully approved by the Panel giving us a clear directive to restart the accreditation reviews. It also presents us with the opportunity to benchmark the new framework as well as our own service over the coming months. Throughout this process we are committed in remaining open to your suggestions and views, and to address any concerns or aspirations regarding this transformative work.