13 June 2013

In my day job, I talk to many different people about how government policy is playing out on the ground. Joined-up working and partnerships are the watch-words of the moment and have cropped up in the early discussions we’ve had in the Connecting Policy with Practice group. But as the conversation progresses, we inevitably get to some variant of “…but the biggest problem is data sharing” accompanied by a rolling of eyes and knowing nods from others in the room.

Has data sharing become the Health and Safety of the modern era? Schools, employers and youth organisations were reporting virtual paralysis because health and safety legislation prevented people from doing almost everything – or so we were led to believe. Now it is the Data Protection Act that is apparently the problem.

Of course, we all recognise that there have to be safeguards in place – many of us will have had that sickening moment when the credit card company calls to say they have noticed ‘unusual transactions’ on your card and you find someone has accessed your details somehow and gone on a spending spree. But equally, we can all think of some headline making cases where bits of information were ‘in the system’ but not joined up before a tragedy occurred.

So like so many things in life, it’s about balance and where you draw the line. I believe that one of the reasons why data sharing in the sphere of government policy is being so talked about now is that technology enables us to do so much more and much faster than ever before. We know that retailers know so much about our spending habits that they target their offers to us on an individual basis…and we have got used to that. So it’s not surprising that we expect things to work the same way in other parts of our lives. The technology is there – where is the will?

Sometimes, the blindingly obvious does need to be made to happen structurally. The Tell Us Once initiative is an example of that. The service allows people to tell central and local government once of a birth or a death, and for this information to be passed on their behalf to the relevant parts of government. Previously people have to deal with a number of government departments and have to notify each one separately.

But rather like our old friend the ‘Elf (and Safety!), the law does not prevent everything from happening as some people think – or would have us believe!

In 2012, a project was set up to produce a series of tools to support improved information sharing focussed on the Troubled Families and Ending Gang and Youth Violence programmes. It was a collaborative effort between local authorities in Leicestershire, Greater Manchester and Bradford together with a number of central government departments. One of the key learning points from the project was that there is a lot of mythology around and that many of the information sharing issues are cultural rather than technical or legal.

Without needing to bring in new legislation, the project Improving Information Sharing and Management has developed and tested a toolkit containing a wealth of case studies, templates and advice to help local practitioners resolve their information sharing issues. One case study describes how the Department of Health has provided advice and guidance to hospital Accident and Emergency departments on how to share anonymised information with Community Safety Partnerships, picking up an approach pioneered in Cardiff. Partnerships can then use the evidence to decide how best to tackle violence.

So I am optimistic. Improved information sharing of personal and anonymised data between central government and local agencies – and between agencies on the ground – has been recognised as being vital to delivering better outcomes at lower cost. We do need to keep talking about this. We need to understand where there are real legislative blockages and where the problems are ones of culture or process. We need to challenge ourselves and others and look for joint solutions.

And let’s share successes – what may seem dead obvious to me may be the insight that unlocks your problem. We’ll be doing this in the weeks and months ahead in the Connecting Policy with Practice programme.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.