Information sharing: a perspective from the Fast Stream


Tom Oldfield,
Government Fast Stream,
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

A little over three months ago I found myself on my way up to Leicester for my first day at the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, the organisation hosting my six-month secondment from the Civil Service Fast Stream Scheme. Since then, I’ve been thoroughly immersed into the world of cross government and public-sector information sharing, understanding the compelling arguments for it, the risks of failing to share, and the most common barriers and enablers to implementing successful sharing partnerships. In particular, I’ve been convinced that culture comes first. If partners aren’t willing to actively work together towards a common goal, then the legal agreements and technical compatibility quickly fade into irrelevance, no matter how much time and money organisations have invested in developing them.

With these new insights, I have been able to take a retrospective look at my previous Fast Stream postings to understand the role of information sharing in the parts of government I had experience of, even if I hadn’t fully understood its place at the time. In particular, my second posting in the early years policy team at Ofsted stood out. While I think most people instinctively recognise the benefits of information sharing for frontline services (for instance health data being available to all parts of the NHS no matter which part of the service collected it), something that I think is often under-considered is the role of information from a range of sources in supporting good policy-making.

In order to understand all the potential implications of their proposals, policymakers need to have as good a picture as possible of the state of the nation. However, the most useful information (be it quantitative, qualitative or even informed opinion) is seldom to be found in one place, so it is only by actively engaging with willing partners that the policy can be put on the soundest footing possible. Along these lines, while in Ofsted’s policy team I worked with and sought insight from a wide range of sources who could contribute another piece to the puzzle of understanding the landscape which my policies could help shape. These included other internal Ofsted teams, like the Early Years Inspectors, The Data and Insight team, and the Registration and Regulation team, all of who had valuable perspectives, which, if left unshared would have resulted in a weaker policy. External organisations too had much valuable insight to offer. Ofsted obviously works very closely with the Department for Education to make the most of the information they collect and hold, but so too did I work with departments like the Treasury and the NHS who held relevant and pertinent information which wouldn’t have been known about unless there was an open dialogue and willingness to co-operate. In my experience, chances are that the better the information policymakers have, the better the policy will be. It therefore behoves us all to avoid working in silos and to share information, insights and understanding with partners across government when it is appropriate to do so.

While in Ofsted I also saw another equally significant space for information sharing, and that is sharing information with the public. I’m a great believer that citizens should be kept informed and be able to access as much information on their society and government services as possible. I think the Ofsted team I was part of did two things particularly well here. Firstly, they publish a quarterly ‘state of the nation’ report which makes available to the public all sorts of information, like the number of registered childcare providers, how many of each provider type there are, and the number of childcare places available in the whole country. This gives the public nearly as good a view as the policymakers to decide if policies, like increasing the number of childcare places, are working and to hold the government to account. Secondly, Ofsted publishes the inspection reports and the overall judgement for every setting it inspects. Sharing this information, rather than keeping it in the ivory towers of government, is immensely valuable for individuals choosing where to send their children for childcare, and also commentators taking a broader look at the quality of early years education in this country.

Information abounds in government, but to get the most from it civil servants and public sector employees alike need to share it with each other, with policymakers, and with the public where it is appropriate to do so.

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