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Data- driven decision-making beyond COVID-19
Incorporating the voice of the child

Data-driven decision-making was central to the UK government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many decisions, informed by data but made without reference to children’s views, had a significant, negative impact upon children. Pre-pandemic some children had already expressed concern that politicians were not considering their views and interests. During the pandemic, the government’s reliance upon data, combined with its pre-disposition to view children as incapable of contributing meaningfully to debates on matters affecting them, and thus its propensity to take decisions without considering children’s views and interests, meant many children felt they had not been heard or respected. This chapter discusses the findings of a small-scale study which sought children’s views about the government’s data-driven pandemic response and confirms that some children want and expect the government to consider their views about matters affecting them, including how their data are used. Although, pre-pandemic, significant concerns were being raised about commercial collection and analysis of children’s data, little attention has previously been given to public sector use of children’s data. The UK government’s response to the COVID-19 emergency has highlighted the complex relationship between public sector data-driven decision-making and children’s participatory rights. Assertions that it will continue its data-driven approach post-pandemic justify a renewed focus both upon the state’s use of children’s data and upon how children’s views feed into state decision-making. This chapter calls for the government to respect its obligations under the UNCRC and ensure that decision-making is informed not only by data but also by children’s views and interests.

Data-driven decision-making has been central to the UK government’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In February 2021, the government memorably promoted a ‘data not dates’ approach to pandemic decision-making (Prime Minister’s Office, 2021), describing its use of data as ‘a cornerstone of the nation’s fight against Coronavirus’ (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), 2021: 6). Indeed, during the pandemic the government utilised a range of data-driven approaches, from entirely automated, AI-powered processing to more ‘mundane’ uses of digital information and statistics to inform decisions (OMDDAC, 2021: 6).

In November 2020, Northumbria University and the Royal United Services Institute joined forces, forming the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Observatory for Monitoring Data-Driven Approaches to COVID-19 (OMDDAC) to monitor key developments in this area.1 OMDDAC has since highlighted several important legal, ethical, regulatory and policy challenges resulting from the UK government’s data-driven response, identifying key lessons to be learned to inform responses to related challenges in future (OMDDAC, 2021).

Early in 2021, OMDDAC identified that a critical perspective was missing from discussions of data-driven approaches to COVID-19: the voice of the child.2 Children have been described as ‘the hidden victims of COVID-19’ (Barnardo’s, 2021). Government decisions, including key decisions to introduce lockdowns and self-isolation requirements, have had a significant impact upon children, yet children’s voices appear to have been excluded from discussions regarding the data-driven coronavirus response (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020; Barnardo’s, 2021). Although others have explored how the pandemic affected adults’ views about governmental use of their data (Lewandowsky et al., 2021), the study discussed in this chapter is the first to recognise that children hold views on this important issue. Indeed, while it might not be considered surprising that children should have views about data-driven decision-making and should express those views when asked to do so, the need to explore children’s views about governmental use of their data appears never to have been considered before the pandemic.

OMDDAC commissioned a child rights organisation, Investing in Children (IiC),3 to seek children’s views about how their data were being used during the pandemic. IiC used their innovative agenda dayTM method, together with an online survey, to ask seventeen children their views about the UK government’s data-driven approach to coronavirus. A crucial finding of this study was that many of these children considered the government had afforded their views insufficient consideration; a perspective reflected elsewhere (Barnardo’s, 2021; Girlguiding, 2021; Lundy et al., 2021).

Increasingly, decisions impacting individuals are being determined based upon ‘the data’ (Lupton and Williamson, 2017; Barassi, 2020). Where decisions affect children, there may be a still greater reliance upon data, because children themselves are often viewed as incapable of contributing meaningfully to debates about matters affecting them (Barassi, 2019). During the pandemic, decisions made upon the basis of ‘the data’ resulted in lockdowns. Reliance upon data also led to a host of other data-driven decisions (to close schools, to determine exam results via algorithms) which impacted upon children’s health, wellbeing and education in a way that adults may not have fully considered or perhaps could not have foreseen.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, some children had already expressed concern that their views and interests were not being considered by politicians, stating that they ‘felt side-lined by adults making decisions without them’ (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2019: 1–2). The significant, negative impact of the government’s pandemic decision-making upon children, the government’s reliance upon data and a corresponding failure to consider the views and interests of affected children (resulting from a predisposition to ignore children’s rights) appear to have magnified the existing issues, leaving many children feeling they had not been respected as citizens (#Covidunder19, 2020).

A key lesson to be learned from the pandemic is that policymakers could do more to respect children’s interests, rights and views. To support this contention, this chapter first details the rights and interests of children impacted by the government’s data-driven pandemic response. It considers why the increasing datafication of children requires children’s views to be fed into data policy and explains why continued public sector data-driven decision-making post-pandemic is likely to result in the increasing marginalisation of children’s voices in all policy areas. It subsequently presents the findings of OMDDAC’s study, exploring children’s perspectives through their own words. It highlights that the government’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the obligation to afford children a right to be heard, do ‘not cease in situations of crisis or in their aftermath’ (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (hereafter, UN Committee), 2009: para. 125). It suggests how the government could ensure children’s views are incorporated into policy, both in times of emergency and more generally.

The government’s data-driven pandemic response and its implications for children

Public and private sector bodies are increasingly using data, including individuals’ personal data, to take data-driven decisions which affect our lives (Barassi, 2020; Robertson and Tisdall, 2020). The use of personal data in data-driven decision-making has been particularly evident during the coronavirus pandemic. The sharing of personal data from multiple sources (NHS Test and Trace datasets, the NHS list of patients for those who were shielding, general practitioner records, and local authority records regarding school attendance and free school meal eligibility) was crucial to supporting vulnerable individuals and delivering localised pandemic responses (London Councils, 2020; OMDDAC, 2021). Free school meals data was vital in ensuring free computers reached disadvantaged children (Department for Education, 2020). Novel approaches to data sharing were illustrated in public-private collaborations, resulting in prioritisation of supermarket delivery slots for vulnerable people (DCMS, 2021). In addition, statistical data (infection rate data and reproduction number (R number) data) were key to anticipating and understanding the spread of COVID-19, determining alert levels and deciding when to impose lockdowns (UK Health Security Agency, 2021a). Data on COVID-19 prevalence, COVID-19 vaccine deployment and health system capacity were key to determining the nature and severity of restrictions upon movement and social gatherings (Cabinet Office, 2021). Key technological data-driven innovations include the QCovidTM algorithm, which uses data to profile and identify people at high risk of hospitalisation, and the NHS COVID-19 app, a digital proximity app which identifies and notifies people who have been in close contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19 (Dawda et al., 2021).

While the government contends that data-driven decision-making played a vital role in addressing the pandemic (DCMS, 2020), the negative implications of the government’s decisions for children must be acknowledged. Although children are at a reduced risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, ‘the secondary impacts of the pandemic’, namely the government’s data-driven decisions to impose restrictions and to close schools, have severely affected children (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020: 15).

In response to the pandemic, between late March 2020 and mid-July 2021, a series of national and local coronavirus regulations and directions were implemented, placing restrictions on individuals’ movement and their ability to gather (Brown and Kirk-Wade, 2021). The United Kingdom entered its first national lockdown in late March 2020; everyone was ordered to stay at home, schools were closed to all but ‘vulnerable children’ and the children of ‘key workers’ (Cabinet Office and Department for Education, 2020). Most children, unable to attend school, were reliant upon schools providing remote or online learning. Many parents reported, however, that during this first lockdown their children’s schools failed to provide any remote learning (OFQUAL, 2021). When further national lockdowns ensued in November 2020 and January 2021, again school attendance was limited to vulnerable children and critical workers’ children (Department for Education, 2021).4 Although there is some evidence that by January 2021 the quality of remote teaching had improved compared with during the first lockdown, many pupils were still unable to access online learning because they had no laptop (OFQUAL, 2021).

National lockdowns and social distancing requirements affected children’s ability to socialise with friends and family (Streetgames, 2020), restricting their right to freedom of association (pursuant to Article 15 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)). The Article 31 UNCRC right to leisure, play and recreation was hampered by lockdowns and the closure of schools and playgrounds (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020). Reduced physical activity, and loneliness caused by social isolation, had significant negative impacts upon children’s ability to attain the highest standards of physical and mental health, protected by Article 24 of the UNCRC (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020: 15; Barnardo’s, 2021; Young Minds, undated). Compounding matters, the NHS’s capacity to treat children declined (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020; Barnardo’s, 2021). Government-mandated school closures also had a severe impact upon children’s ability to access an effective education (pursuant to Articles 28 and 29 of the UNCRC and Article 2, First Protocol of the ECHR), with pre-existing educational inequalities between children of richer and poorer households exacerbated (Barnardo’s, 2021; Lundy et al., 2021).

While the principle of non-discrimination lies at the heart of the UNCRC (Article 2), the government’s decisions have impacted most harshly upon those children already vulnerable to breaches of their rights (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020; Barnardo’s, 2021; Lundy et al., 2021), particularly poorer children and children from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.5 The poor and disadvantaged were most likely to experience increased levels of violence and abuse, notwithstanding Article 19 UNCRC’s right to protection from abuse and violence (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020; Lundy et al., 2021). Lockdowns had a catastrophic impact on family finances, pushing some families into poverty, with some struggling to pay bills and to feed their children (Barnardo’s, 2021), impacting upon children’s Article 27 UNCRC right to an adequate standard of living. This has led some to describe the coronavirus pandemic as a ‘syndemic’ (‘where the virus interacts with pre-existing vulnerabilities’ that are ‘driven by larger political, economic, social, and environmental processes’) (Wernli et al. and Geneva Science Policy Interface, 2021: 4).

Children’s privacy6 was also affected by requirements for those testing positive for COVID-19 to provide contact information to NHS Test and Trace (UK Health Security Agency, 2020) and by schools obliging pupils to inform them when they tested positive (Cumbria County Council, undated). The use of algorithms to determine children’s exam grades in August 2020 provides a final example of how data-driven decision-making affected children, again impacting most upon disadvantaged children (House of Commons Education Committee, 2020). With the majority of children prevented from attending school, and thus unable to sit examinations, the UK’s qualification regulators7 were directed to develop an alternative approach to awarding grades (Office for Statistics Regulation, 2021). In England, OFQUAL asked schools to provide the grade they thought a student would have received had their exams taken place. This information was combined with other data, including previous grades attained by students at each school and teacher-awarded grades for other 2020 exam candidates. When results were published, 40 per cent of grades had been moderated down by OFQUAL’s algorithm (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020). Many children were unaware of the regulators’ proposed alternative grading process, subsequently expressing concern about how their grades were calculated, the impact it had upon their ability to attend their desired university, and thus upon their futures (Busby, 2020; Priestley et al., 2020).

The UNCRC imposes significant obligations upon the UK, including requirements to treat the child’s best interests as a primary consideration (Article 3). Every law and regulation that affects children should be underpinned by the ‘best interests’ criterion (UN Committee, 2013). During the pandemic, however, many decisions impacted negatively upon children, raising questions about the UK’s compliance with Article 3 UNCRC (best interests) and Article 2 UNCRC (non-discrimination). Concerns have also been expressed about governmental failures to consult with children during the pandemic upon issues directly affecting them, and about the inability of decision-making processes ‘to meaningfully respect children’s rights to be active participants in decisions made about them’ (Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland and Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, 2020: 5, 13). Article 12 UNCRC stipulates that ‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his/her own views the right to express those views freely in matters affecting them, such views being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child’. Children themselves argue that to protect children’s rights, children’s voices must be heard (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, 2021), yet during the pandemic children have not felt heard; they have felt forgotten (Barnardo’s, 2021; Girlguiding, 2021; Lundy et al., 2021). England’s Children’s Commissioner has suggested that during the pandemic children’s best interests were not the government’s primary consideration. Instead, children’s needs were ‘side-lined and ignored’ and their rights ‘downgraded’ (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020: 27).

It is, of course, possible to argue that both the undue impact on children and lack of engagement with them are symptomatic of the same problem, that children’s wellbeing and rights could not be prioritised during a pandemic where many basic human rights were suspended. Eminent child-rights scholars make clear, however, that such an argument is unsustainable. The UN Committee emphasises that children’s views should be sought whenever their views are likely to improve the quality of the solutions (UN Committee, 2009: para. 27). It confirms that the Article 12 UNCRC right to be heard ‘does not cease in situations of crisis or in their aftermath’ (UN Committee, 2009: para. 125). Indeed, as Lundy et al. note, ‘States’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the situations where there were (and are) clear and grave consequences for children’s enjoyment of their human rights, and thus an obligation to engage with them quickly and directly’ (Lundy et al., 2021: 262). Given that children’s rights (e.g., to health, to protection from harm, to education, to play) were so significantly impacted, it is arguable that children were impacted by the pandemic more significantly than adults, and that there was, therefore, a crucial need to seek children’s views.

A continued emphasis on data-driven decision-making and the ‘datafication of children’

The UK government now proposes to build on its data-driven response to the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting a data-driven approach will be used to inform other ‘governmental priorities, such as improving outcomes in education’ (DCMS, 2021: 103). The government does not outline how such expanded data use may affect children, and there is no evidence that children’s views have been sought either upon the government’s Data Strategy (DCMS, 2020), or upon its proposals for data protection reform (DCMS, 2021).

Such a continued lack of focus on children is unsurprising. Policy debates tend often to be dominated by adults and by the view that young people need to be protected (Coleman et al., 2017; Barassi, 2019). The need to consider how data-driven decision-making impacts upon children is, however, more important now than ever. Children are ‘increasingly datafied’, through mobile phones, social media and education software, with data generated often being used to monitor, evaluate and make decisions about them (Lupton and Williamson, 2017: 781). Such ‘dataveillance’ reconfigures children into ‘digital data assemblages’; once transformed ‘into data’ they are then used as ‘numbers to influence or act on individuals’ (Lupton and Williamson, 2017: 783). Consider, for instance, how during the pandemic individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, who were hospitalised, or who died became ‘data’ used to justify decisions to introduce lockdowns and to close schools.

Such ‘dataveillance’ raises important rights issues for children. Lupton and Williamson identify that increasingly data that ‘speak for themselves’ are being used ‘in ways that override the rights of children to speak for themselves’; they suggest data-processing algorithms are ‘erasing children’s own embodied experiences and voices from decision-making processes’ and that ‘[r]‌ather than engag[ing] children in their right to involvement in decisions about important matters that affect their lives, many analytics systems appear to distribute decision-making to automated, proprietary systems’ (Lupton and Williamson, 2017: 790). They argue that in

many approaches to the datafication and dataveillance of children, the embodied and subjective voices of children are displaced by the supposed impartial objectivity provided by the technological mouthpieces of data. Data are positioned to provide a more detailed and manageable account of who children really are, free from the messiness of dialogic deliberation and freedom of expression. (Lupton and Williamson, 2017: 790)

The study

Given the significant impact data-driven decision-making has had upon children, the indications such a data-driven approach will continue after the coronavirus pandemic, and the implications for children of such data-driven decision-making, OMDDAC decided to commission IiC to seek children’s views on the government’s data-driven response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Investing in Children

IiC is a children’s human rights organisation which supports children to enter into dialogue with adult decision-makers.8 IiC believes ‘children are knowledgeable about the world in which they live and can be powerful participants in political dialogue and persuasive advocates on their own behalf’ (IiC, undated-a).

IiC used its innovative, agenda day™ method to engage children in discussion.9 An agenda day is an adult-free space. Child facilitators lead group conversations, encouraging other children to express views (Stalford et al., 2017; IiC, undated-b). Children themselves take primary responsibility for notetaking and report writing, although an IiC project worker assists, discussing issues for exploration prior to the agenda day, providing support where needed. Child facilitators and attendees all receive a nominal fee to thank them for their time.

Although agenda days traditionally take place in person, social distancing measures made a face-to-face event impossible. A virtual agenda day was therefore facilitated via Zoom, taking place on the evening of 7 July 2021, a time chosen to suit children. Conscious that many children were feeling ‘Zoomed out’, IiC also offered children the opportunity to contribute views via an online survey available from 23 June to 16 July 2021. The framework for the study was provided in a detailed brief, designed by OMDDAC.

Participants were recruited by IiC via email and Twitter. Recruitment was timed to ensure children’s views could be incorporated into OMDDAC’s final report (OMDDAC, 2021) and shared with policymakers. In accordance with Northumbria University ethics requirements and IiC procedures, consent was obtained from participants or their parents, depending upon age, using a consent form IiC co-produced with children.

In total, seventeen children participated. Five children aged 15–18, including two participant facilitators attended the agenda day. Twelve children completed the survey: two aged 11–13, five aged 14–16 and five aged 17–18. Children lived in areas ranked in deciles 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 of the English Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), decile 1 encompassing the most deprived areas and decile 10 the least deprived (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2019).

The OMDDAC brief

OMDDAC’s brief to IiC included open and closed questions, offering children the opportunity to respond to specific queries and provide more detailed commentary. The brief was designed to be accessible to children from primary school age upwards and relevant to policymakers. It contained several broad topics, which were explored at the agenda day and via the survey:

  • what the children knew about how the government was responding to coronavirus; including what they knew about how information and technology were being used;
  • from where they obtained their information;
  • whether they wanted more information about the government’s approach;
  • whether they felt there had been enough discussion with them about data-driven decision-making;
  • whether they would have liked their views to have been sought before decisions were made; and
  • how they thought the government could obtain their views.

In addition, the brief covered three scenarios involving data-driven approaches used during the pandemic: wastewater testing; algorithmic determination of school grades; and monitoring of self-isolation obligations by police. The facilitators suggested the agenda day focus on two scenarios. Scenario 3 (police monitoring) was therefore not discussed at the agenda day, although it was included in the online survey.

The impact of algorithmic assessment of school grades is discussed above, as are the self-isolation requirements which prevented children from attending school and leisure activities. OMDDAC also decided to explore children’s views on the less-discussed topic of wastewater analysis, having identified that this novel dataset was being used during the pandemic in unprecedented, innovative ways to detect geographical outbreaks of COVID-19 and inform local and national responses (Allsopp et al., 2021; OMDDAC, 2021; UK Health Security Agency, 2021b). Such testing is expected to continue post-pandemic, to monitor and respond to public health concerns but also, for example, to detect the presence of illegal substances (Ott, 2020; Van der Sloot, 2021). Academics are already raising concerns about potential ‘scope creep’, suggesting ‘sewage monitoring might become one of the most common and invasive forms of surveillance’ (Van der Sloot, 2021: 1). Including wastewater analysis in the brief afforded children a valuable opportunity to contribute their views to dialogue on this emerging issue.

Reflections on the study design

This study did not aim to achieve representativeness. The challenges of recruiting children as participants are widely recognised (Cree et al., 2002). Discussions with a large research consultancy suggest the challenges have been exacerbated during the pandemic. This study sought to investigate whether any children knew how data were being used in response to the pandemic, and to gain insights into children’s views about such data use. Children themselves believe they can provide meaningful insights into issues which adults consider of limited importance (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, 2021). Academics suggest even small samples can afford valuable information about children’s perspectives and experiences and can be useful in the development of practical recommendations (Millward and Senker, 2012).

The pandemic undoubtedly posed challenges. Social distancing measures meant some form of online engagement was the only realistic option. Using two different online data collection methods raised further issues. While individualised responses were provided by survey respondents, the agenda day report delivered a broader overview of discussions, as interpreted by the child facilitators. Agenda day participants only covered the first two scenarios, while survey respondents provided views on all three. Despite the recognised limitations of this study, the clear, often detailed, comments provided by the children nonetheless merit further consideration.

Findings

Several themes were identifiable from participants’ comments. Specifically, the children wanted to be provided with reliable information about matters affecting them, including use of their data. They held clear views about how their data should be used, and they wanted to express those views and for the government to consider them.

Children want to be reliably informed

Most participants (five agenda day attendees, nine survey respondents) were aware of key measures introduced to address coronavirus (COVID-19), mentioning: lockdowns; social distancing; mandatory mask wearing; COVID-19 vaccinations; tiered travel restrictions; school closures; funded tutoring; monitoring of infection rate, hospitalisation and mortality data; NHS Test and Trace; and the NHS COVID-19 app. Gaps in knowledge were, nonetheless, evident. Answering the question ‘What have the Government done to tackle COVID-19’, one survey respondent said they did not know, two respondents failed to answer. Some agenda day attendees knew wastewater was being tested, others were ‘absolutely clueless’. Seven survey respondents were unaware of wastewater testing. Awareness of the algorithms used to grade students again varied. All children attending the agenda day knew about the plans; seven survey respondents did not. Significantly, this included five children aged 14–18. This did not mean, however, that the children had no opinion about this proposal; indeed, all agenda day attendees and four survey respondents said they disliked the idea.

As to how children obtained information, the children referred to various avenues: schools, social media, parents, family, friends and televised and reported news.10 Nonetheless, the children did not all believe they had received sufficient, trustworthy information from the government; five survey respondents thought children had been given insufficient information about government decisions relating to coronavirus, with one child commenting that policies ‘aren’t broadcasted well enough’. Although agenda day participants had seen official government announcements about coronavirus restrictions, this was through social media. They commented critically upon the government website: ‘The Government has not used their website effectively as it was very difficult to read and understand. The young people were rather critical of the Government website as it was difficult to navigate.’ This criticism is particularly notable given that agenda day attendees expressed concerns about the reliability of information gained from other sources, such as ‘biased’ news reporting and social media, which they described as ‘a very untrustworthy source’.11 Responses suggest even digitally literate children, who wish to keep themselves informed, may not always be able to effectively access government messaging, and that the government could do more to afford children access to information about policies affecting them.12 Article 17 UNCRC (the right to access information and mass media) and Article 13 UNCRC (imposing an obligation on states ‘to refrain from interfering in children’s expression of their views, or in their access to information’) are viewed as ‘crucial prerequisites for the effective exercise’ of the child’s Article 12 UNCRC right to be heard (UN Committee, 2009: para. 80). Where children do not know how their data are used, or how decisions affecting them are made, they may be unable to effectively exercise their Article 12 UNCRC right. The importance of ensuring information is presented to children in child-friendly, understandable language is recognised nationally and internationally (UN Committee, 2009; Council of Europe, 2018; Information Commissioner’s Office, 2020). In the context of data-driven decision-making, Article 12 of the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UKGDPR), further affords a right to receive information about the collection and processing of one’s personal data. UKGDPR Article 12 and Recital 58 emphasise that information provided to children should be intelligible, easily accessible and in clear, plain language.

Children have views about the government’s data-driven approach

Participants expressed clear, but mixed, views about the data-driven pandemic response. Ten did not support the education regulators’ decision to use an algorithm to determine student grades, raising concerns about the inability of computers to determine a student’s capabilities, as well as the exacerbation of a social class divide. One thought it a good plan, six were undecided. In relation to wastewater monitoring, again, views varied. The child facilitators in their agenda day report for example, described wastewater testing as ‘innovative’, explaining that agenda day attendees:

believed that if it was going to protect people that it shouldn’t matter if they felt that it was a little invasive as it is for the greater good. They said that it was a good way of identifying the COVID-19 hotpots. The young people didn’t believe it to be an invasion of privacy because it could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by recognising where most cases were and putting certain restrictions in place, such as a local lockdown.

Six survey respondents also considered wastewater testing an acceptable response. Two, however, were unsure. A further four opposed testing, with one stating, ‘people need to be aware and consenting’. When asked whether information derived from such testing should be shared with others, again views varied. Agenda day attendees accepted the need to share data with health professionals and the local authority but were less happy for it to be shared with the police, elaborating that ‘the police had no business in knowing this information’ and querying ‘what they would do in protecting the public with this information’. Several survey respondents thought it acceptable for the information to be widely shared, with two children suggesting it might even be shared publicly. Again, however, a preference was shown for sharing with health professionals and the local authority over the police (nine survey respondents supported information sharing with health professionals and the local council; five agreed to information sharing with the police). This aligns with findings from OMDDAC’s nationally representative UK public perceptions survey, which also identified that adults were less prepared to share information with the police than with health professionals or local authorities (Sutton et al., 2021). Both this study and the adult public perceptions survey found also that participants were more willing to share anonymised information than non-anonymised information.

As mentioned above, agenda day attendees did not consider police monitoring. Survey respondents’ views about the police being told when individuals are required to self-isolate were again divided. Five children considered disclosure acceptable; four were unsure; three objected. More children (eight) expressed concern, however, when asked how they would feel if their family were monitored to ensure they were self-isolating. Two children raised specific concerns about the police, one suggesting ‘police are corrupt and have biases which could lead to unequal fines’, the other worrying that any fines levied for non-compliance would ‘disproportionately impact poorer families who often have no choice but to go to work’.

Overall comments suggest further research exploring children’s views about public sector data sharing with the police would be valuable. Given the children’s apparent lack of trust in the police, consideration should be given to exploring, with children, how trust in the police and other public bodies can be improved. The diversity and complexity of participants’ views indicate a potential need for wider scale, representative research exploring children’s views about public sector data-driven decision-making. Limited attention has been given to children’s views about governmental use of their data (Milkaite et al., 2021; Stoilova et al., 2021). The only other study which considers children and data-driven decision-making focuses primarily upon children’s data literacy, not children’s views about governmental or public sector use of their data (Robertson and Tisdall, 2020).

Children want their views to be considered

The key message articulated by participants was that the government (not just academia) should consider their views. Seven survey respondents said there had been insufficient discussion with children. Seven respondents also said young people should have been asked before decisions were taken about important matters such as school closures, COVID-19 testing at school and mask wearing at school. The agenda day report similarly illustrates the children’s desire to feed into decision-making:

Without any hesitation, definitely the young people would have wanted to be asked about the decisions being made, as it was their future so they should have a say. They said that if they were asked about wearing masks they would have agreed in a heartbeat as they would rather wear a mask than work on a laptop virtually at home.

Agenda day attendees clearly thought the government could have done more to engage with children and ensure their interests were considered, commenting that:

young people are not considered enough, especially when the pandemic has affected them massively. People doing exams this year and last year, such as GCSEs weren’t even considered when forming a plan and making big decisions about their futures. … The young people seem frustrated as their futures have not been considered at all, they believe that COVID-19 is going to impact future employment and the government has simply ignored this.

Recommendations beyond COVID-19

As this chapter illustrates,

[d]‌uring crises, every decision taken by governments not only affects the adults … but … has an impact on the community that surrounds children. … It becomes important to seek children’s views not only because of the direct implications that decisions during crises have, but also because there are numerous indirect impacts of such crises on children. (Lundy et al., 2021: 280)

It is widely recognised, however, that, as children in OMDDAC’s study noted, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic children’s views were absent from ‘adult-centric’ public discourse (Lundy et al., 2021), and those formulating policy solutions ignored children’s interests in favour of adult concerns (Reid et al., 2022). Some academics recommend that policymakers should, in future, use Children’s Rights Impact Assessments to examine the potential impact on children of proposed laws, policies and decisions as they are developed, to avoid or mitigate negative impacts (Reid et al., 2022). Given the comments of the children who participated in OMDDAC’s study, and given the government’s UNCRC obligations, particularly under Article 12, it is suggested that the UK government should also incorporate children’s views into policy- and decision-making, in times of emergency but also more generally. Such an approach accords with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which articulates member states’ commitment to empower vulnerable people including children and makes explicit the role children may play as ‘critical agents of change’ (United Nations, undated: para. 51). Specifically, given its stated intention to continue its data-driven approach, the government should support children to become active agents in data policy. While it is often assumed that children lack the maturity and capacity to formulate opinions on such complex issues, OMDDAC’s study challenges this view.

Children’s participation and Article 12 UNCRC

Article 12 UNCRC is a particularly important right for children, because it affords children the status of rights holders entitled to participate in decision-making (Cuevas-Parra, 2021: 83). The UN Committee explains the term ‘participation’

is now widely used to describe ongoing processes, which include information sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect, and in which children can learn how their views and those of adults are taken into account and shape the outcome of such processes. (UN Committee, 2009: para. 3)13

Effective, meaningful participation cannot, therefore, be understood as an individual one-off event (UN Committee, 2009: para. 133). Participation should involve two-way dialogue. It should be ‘undertaken with the very specific purpose of enabling children to influence decision-making and bring about change’ (Sinclair, 2004: 111).

Lundy’s internationally respected model of participation, which reflects the UN Committee’s understanding of how Article 12’s obligations can be satisfied, is recommended as a basis for ensuring policy is informed by children’s views (Lundy, 2007).14 It comprises four components which form part of an iterative process of consultation, feedback and consultation:

  1. Space: Children must be given the opportunity to express a view;
  2. Voice: Children must be facilitated to express their views;
  3. Audience: The view must be listened to; and
  4. Influence: The view must be acted upon, as appropriate. (Lundy, 2007: 933)

Compliance with Article 2 UNCRC (non-discrimination) requires that any participation strategy acknowledges that children are not a homogeneous group (as illustrated by the diverse views expressed by study participants). Care must be taken to include perspectives from minority groups, including: home-schooled children, children excluded from or truanting from school, children in local authority care, children with disabilities, children for whom English is not a first language, children from travelling or socially excluded communities, and children from ethnic minority backgrounds (Borland et al., 2001). Materials must be child-friendly, multilingual, age- and capacity-appropriate and accessible to all children. This is particularly relevant given the negative comments expressed by participants concerning the government website.

Engagement methods

The children involved in OMDDAC’s study suggested a range of methods government and policymakers might use to engage with children: through schools, youth organisations, social media and surveys, including surveys disseminated through schools. Further options include: one-to-one interviews; group discussions; interactive events; online discussions; events and conferences; consultation documents circulated for written comment; online consultation; visual approaches including maps and flow diagrams; video; theatre; formal structures such as youth forums and representative councils; youth juries; and face-to-face meetings between children and politicians (Borland et al., 2001; Coleman et al., 2017; Livingstone et al., 2019; Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland and Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, 2020; Barnardo’s, 2021).

Many of these methods require careful thought for several reasons: the formal written consultation typically used by government departments15 may be inaccessible to children, particularly those with disabilities or poor literacy; individual interviews are costly; and focus groups, group interviews, events and conferences, while popular with children, may inhibit marginalised and less vocal children from expressing their opinions. While the pandemic has illustrated the effectiveness and accessibility of large-scale online surveys designed with and for children, some investment may be needed to ensure children can interact safely with decision-makers via accessible, multilingual, age-appropriate digital platforms (Children’s Commissioner for Wales, 2020; Children’s Parliament, 2020; Girlguiding, 2021; Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, 2021). Since not all children can access information technology (Joining Forces for All Children, 2021), some children may require support to complete surveys at school or college (Borland et al., 2001). A combination of methods may be required to ensure all children can express a view.

Crucially, many initiatives developed during the pandemic have illustrated the important role child- and youth-led organisations can play in supporting participation and in engaging ‘hard-to-reach’ children (Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland and Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, 2020; Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, 2021). Children can provide invaluable advice upon the design of child-friendly resources (Stalford et al., 2017) and should be involved in the design and delivery of all communications to children (Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland and Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, 2020), particularly communications conveying ‘often opaque’ information about data processing (Milkaite et al., 2021: 6). Children, where trained, can also play an important role in identifying issues and collecting and analysing data from other children (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, 2021; Lundy et al., 2021). Ultimately, however, the government needs to invest in development of children’s networks (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, 2021) and commit to resourcing and training individuals to engage with children: ‘[I]‌nvestment in the realization of the child’s right to be heard in all matters of concern to her or him and for her or his views to be given due consideration, is a clear and immediate legal obligation of States parties under the Convention’ (UN Committee, 2009: para. 135).

Listening to, hearing and acting upon children’s views

Finally, and as Lundy’s model recognises, it is not sufficient to simply ask children to provide their views. Effective participation requires the government to listen to and act on children’s views. To ensure that children’s rights and interests are protected, a shift in perception is needed from children as ‘passive objects in need of protection’ to ‘active participants in decision making processes affecting them’ (Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland and Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, 2020: 13). As the UN Committee recognises, this may ‘necessitate dismantling the legal, political, economic, social and cultural barriers that currently impede children’s opportunity to be heard and their access to participation in all matters affecting them. It requires a preparedness to challenge assumptions about children’s capacities’ (UN Committee, 2009: para. 135). If the lessons of the pandemic are to be learned, and acted on, political environments, structures and institutions must become ‘more respectful of and responsive to children’s civic society’ (Joining Forces for All Children, 2021: 11).

Concluding comments

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and the data-driven decisions taken in response, affected every aspect of children’s lives. They are likely to have a long-lasting impact upon children (Irwin et al., 2022). Such obvious impacts mobilised researchers (including OMDDAC), the Children’s Commissioners, NGOs and charities to seek children’s views. Children’s concerns that they have not been listened to have been expressed loudly across a plethora of projects and surveys,16 including the study discussed in this chapter; a study which emphasises that many children are articulate, intelligent, want to, and when provided with appropriate information can, play a valuable role in responding to policies which impact upon children.

Of course, the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for governments. One could argue that they did the best they could, that they could not be expected to take everyone’s interests into account, that the UK government’s approach, to make the protection of lives and livelihoods its ‘overriding goal’ (Cabinet Office, 2021) was the correct one. Such arguments are, however, ill-founded. As Lundy notes, the coronavirus pandemic was ‘one of the situations where there were … clear and grave consequences for children’s enjoyment of their human rights, and thus an obligation to engage with them quickly and directly’ (Lundy et al., 2021: 262). UNCRC obligations continue to apply even ‘in situations of crisis’ (UN Committee, 2009: para. 125). The government’s commitment to the UNCRC (Article 3) required it to treat children’s best interests as a primary consideration, and to afford children a right to be heard.

During the pandemic, however, children faced a ‘double-whammy’ – a pre-existing preference for adults to take decisions without considering the child’s perspective, a preference based upon misguided assumptions that children are incapable of contributing effectively to decision-making, and a data-driven approach to pandemic decision-making which encouraged the further marginalisation of children’s views and rights. It has been suggested that data are often assumed to speak for themselves (Lupton and Williamson, 2017: 790). As the eminent statistician, David Spiegelhalter, highlighted during the pandemic, however, ‘[d]‌ata does not speak for itself – it needs people to speak honestly and carefully on its behalf’ (Spiegelhalter and Masters, 2022). Where decisions affect children, children need to be afforded the opportunity to express their views. Indeed, children make clear that where (data-driven) decisions are taken without additional reference being made to those affected, such decisions may not only have a negative impact on them, but may also result in them feeling that they are not afforded due respect as citizens (#Covidunder19, 2020).

Pre-pandemic, many of the concerns about the dataveillance of children have focused upon commercial organisations and technologies. The UK government’s data-driven pandemic response, and its assertions that it will continue and develop this data-driven approach post-pandemic in areas affecting children, now require us to turn renewed attention to state dataveillance, the impact of governmental data-driven decision-making upon children, and how children’s views are fed into decision-making. The coronavirus emergency and the government’s response has made apparent the complex relationship between public sector data-driven decision-making and the child’s UNCRC rights to be heard, to receive information and to have their best interests treated as a primary consideration. In this, the first study to have asked children about governmental use of data to make decisions affecting them, children’s views are clear. They want to be listened to.

It is impossible to know whether outcomes/policy would have been different had the UK government and other governments listened to children. If governments had listened to children, they might still have come to the same conclusions. It is easy in hindsight to recognise where decisions have had significant negative impacts upon children. In the midst of the pandemic, it was perhaps less easy, for example, to identify the long-term impact of school closures. The fact that decisions might have been the same does not mean that it was not still important to listen to children. They have a right to be listened to and their views taken into account.

In any future pandemic, governments must be mindful of the views expressed by children during this pandemic and, respecting their obligations under the UNCRC, pay careful attention to their rights and interests. As important, the UK government should act now to ensure children’s UNCRC rights are fully recognised and that, in accordance with the recommendations made in this chapter, its approach to decision-making is informed not only by data but also by children’s views and interests.

Notes

1 See www.omddac.org.uk/ (accessed 21 September 2022).
2 In this chapter, the term ‘children’ encompasses all children and young people under the age of eighteen, reflecting the terminology in Article 1 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
3 See https://investinginchildren.net/ (accessed 24 August 2022).
4 Reclassification from key to critical workers (parents whose work was critical either to the coronavirus or EU transition response) meant more children attended school in the second and third lockdowns, albeit most continued to access education remotely. See: https://educationhub.blog.gov.uk/2021/01/08/am-i-a-critical-worker-or-are-they-vulnerable-or-without-internet-access-or-broadband/
5 Children’s access to public green space for play was limited, especially in poorer urban areas. Eight per cent of children in England had no access to a private garden, rising to 22 per cent for children from BAME backgrounds (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020: 24).
6 Protected by Article 16 UNCRC and European Convention on Human Rights Article 8.
7 In England, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (OFQUAL); in Scotland, Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA); in Wales, Qualifications Wales; in Northern Ireland, Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA).
8 https://investinginchildren.net/ (accessed 24 August 2022).
9 An approach used in the UK, and internationally (by Irish Child and Family Agency, Tusla (www.tusla.ie/uploads/content/Investing_in_Children_Agenda_Days_2021.pdf) and by Norwegian children’s rights organisation Med Ungdom in Fokus (https://ungdom.com/).
10 These sources are similar to those other children report using (Children’s Commissioner for Wales, 2020; Children’s Parliament, 2020).
11 Other children have expressed similar concerns about social media (Lundy et al., 2021).
12 Also suggested by other children (Children’s Parliament, 2020).
13 For detailed discussion of what effective participation entails, see Bessant (2022).
14 Lundy’s model has been used nationally and internationally to give children a voice (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2015; Leicester City Council, undated; World Health Organization, 2018).
15 For example, the consultation document, ‘Data: a new direction’ (DCMS, 2021).
16 See, for example: Children’s Commissioner, 2020; Barnardo’s, 2021; Girlguiding, 2021; United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, undated; #CovidUnder19, 2020.

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