Keeping people at the heart of multi-agency information sharing

Jovian Smalley, Engagement Manager
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

At a time when the spotlight is shining on child safeguarding practices following events in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford, the case for developing multi-agency intelligence sharing capacity has never been stronger.

Last month, Capita hosted its fourth Multi-Agency Information Sharing Conference, which attracted a wide range of delegates from all corners of the public sector, including blue-light, public health, safeguarding and early years services. The conference focussed on how multi-agency information sharing can improve outcomes for the most vulnerable.

An emerging theme during the day was the potential for operational information sharing arrangements, such as a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), to become a central management information resource that feeds directly into early help, health service commissioning and integrated victims strategies. Chaired by Director, Stephen Curtis, the opening challenge to attendees was to re-double efforts in concentrating on improving outcomes for service users – thereby moving from a prescription-based model of multi-agency information sharing to one that is supported by local evidence.

Jonathan Bamford, Head of Strategic Liaison at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), delivered the conference keynote speech and reasoned that although society runs on citizen data, it is maintained through citizen trust. By the same token, he highlighted that organisations need to give their staff confidence that data will be shared appropriately (the ICO can impose stiff penalties for getting it wrong), and when setting up multi-agency arrangements, they must consider how to enable the right kind of information to be shared in the right way.

Simon Paul, from the Isle of Wight NHS Trust, went on to strengthen this message in his discussion of how to improve crisis response by shifting culture and attitudes towards information sharing. He reinforced the point that the effectiveness of information sharing relies on building good relationships and mutual trust between stakeholders, while simultaneously complying with a variety of legislative, regulatory and ethical demands.

As Karen Graham, Children’s Services Assistant Director at Kent County Council, explained, this was actually about spending time together! The key steps to embedding this culture in Kent were getting their partners to commit to using one data-set for all their information needs from the outset, and establishing common ground to function as an integrated unit.

Karen’s discussion about unifying data-sets prompted a dialogue around the impact of information technology issues on information sharing during the following panel discussion. This gave delegates the opportunity to hear from professionals working on both the development of London MASHs, and the Health & Social Care Child Protection – Information Sharing (CP-IS) project.

While the Centre focuses its activity on understanding and disseminating the cultural and organisational barriers to sharing, we acknowledge that solving the legal and technical aspects of developing multi-agency arrangements can take time and effort, so it was encouraging that delegates had space to surface these concerns.

In the afternoon, Anne Turner, Assistant Director of Children’s Services at the London Borough of Camden, spoke eloquently of the need to establish confidentiality protocols and privacy risks when sharing information across agencies. Central to managing these risks, Anne explained, was understanding how to carry out privacy impact assessments – something Camden can provide plenty of advice on to the uninitiated!

Ivan Molyneaux, Head of Safeguarding and Cambridgeshire County Council, closed the day with an inspiring case study of Cambridgeshire’s MASH, explaining that integrated practice had led to better and more timely information sharing, as well as better decision making. Cambridgeshire had been grappling with the challenges posed by the ‘confidential bubble’ issue that Jonathan had referred to earlier in the day; how to share information at the right time, in the right way, with the right people, so that citizens trust the system?

With just enough time at the end of a jam-packed event for Stephen to bring the discussions to a close, he reflected that a focus on outcomes had surfaced strongly throughout the day, and appealed for delegates to maintain their focus on the user by continuing to move from prescription to practice in their information sharing arrangements.

The conference left me with no doubt that multi-agency working begins with better information sharing to improve outcomes for vulnerable people. The question now is, what other policy areas could it also provide critical support to in the future?