Information-sharing is at the heart of public sector reform in New Zealand, where managing for organisation-centric performance outputs is being replaced by collaboratively achieving more effective client-centric outcomes. This paradigm shift in the design and delivery of public services is based on the acknowledgement that vulnerable individuals and families usually face complex problems with interrelated, underlying causes located in various policy domains, such as unemployment, lack of education, poor health, poor housing and crime.
Traditionally, it is expected that people join up the existing organisational structures of government in a way that the complexity of their problems can be met. However, by taking a more holistic viewpoint of an individual’s or family’s needs, more effective social outcomes can be achieved by wrapping government and community services around those interrelated needs. The expectation is that increased effectiveness will also lead to increased efficiency, according to the architect of these reforms, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of New Zeland, Bill English: “what is good for people, is good for the books”.
Cross-agency information-sharing is critical to support this paradigm shift towards achieving more effective outcomes, therefore. However, although New Zealanders have a relatively high trust in government agencies, New Zealand is also a country where people strongly value their privacy. Information-sharing in New Zealand is not that easy or straight-forward, with privacy legislation as the only legislation in the area of information-sharing at the moment, often perceived as standing in the way of cross-agency information-sharing.
A few years ago, in order to understand the barriers and enablers to cross-agency information-sharing in New Zealand, we undertook qualitative interviews with c70 professionals involved in a number of collaborative initiatives focused on vulnerable individuals and families across New Zealand. These are some of the things we learned from the New Zealand front-line:
A critical enabler of cross-agency information-sharing turned out to be the trust that a person giving the information, has in the person receiving the information to treat it professionally and use it judiciously. Without that trust, information is not shared. In that respect, building trust between professionals is supported through co-location and so-called ‘facilitative leadership’ in collaborative initiatives: leaders who focus on the development of relationships between agencies and make sure that the right agency representatives with relevant skills are participating in the multi-agency initiative.
In general, when information is shared between professionals, it is shared on a ‘need to know’ basis: conscious about the need to protect the privacy of the individual, professionals often use abstracted information to alert colleagues from other service providing organisations about the need to further investigate a particular client. This minimalistic form of information-sharing between professionals is justified in terms of ensuring that colleagues know enough to do their jobs effectively and safely. However, if staff are privy to information which endangers the health or safety of individuals, this information is shared regardless of the legal or ethical restrictions. As our respondents explained, “common sense needs to prevail” in these situations: “if staff break the law, they do it for the right reasons.”
Not surprisingly perhaps, cross-agency information-sharing is further increased when there is a clear commitment amongst the professionals involved to a shared outcome. Another enabler for information-sharing at the front-line is having uniform legal guidance from the various head-offices involved, which often operate under different legal frameworks and use varying legal interpretations as a result.
Barriers to information-sharing we identified are agency representatives perceiving their own data as of more superior quality compared to data owned by others, which leads to people’s unwillingness to share or integrate data; a lack of technical interoperability between the organisations involved; and a lack of digital knowledge and skills amongst frontline staff.
These enablers and barriers highlight the critical importance of people, leadership, uniform legal guidance and cultural change for effective cross-agency information-sharing in New Zealand; factors which are not too dissimilar from information-sharing practice in other countries.