Supporting better use of data

Joanna Huxton,
National Liaison Manager,

Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

The Government recently launched a consultation on its proposed ‘Better use of data’ legislation. Led by the Cabinet Office, this follows two years of work of open policy making discussions with civil society groups and others, including my colleagues here from the Centre.

This next phase of consultation seeks a wide range of views on the proposed legislation and to have an informed debate on improving the use of data. The consultation is open until Friday 22nd April and it’s an opportunity to provide Government with views and feedback on how public authorities can use data better to improve public services for citizens.

This legislation sits alongside rather than over-rides existing powers. It should not weaken the principles of the Data Protection Act or interfere with Common Law powers already being used by authorities. Instead, the legislation is designed to provide public authorities with the flexibility to respond quickly to new needs and it is intended to reduce the need to establish new specific legal gateways. Future proofing the legislation is a laudable aim, but a difficult one to achieve when the purposes are tightly constrained.

There are three key strands to the proposed legislation. These are:-

  1. Improving public services – create a single gateway to enable public authorities to share personal data to help deliver timely and effective interventions to citizens and make the best use of taxpayers’ money.
  2. Tackling fraud and debt – allow public authorities to pilot projects that identify where individuals have debts with a number of public agencies, and then have a single interaction with them to help manage those debts and to pilot methods to spot conflicting information across different public services that could suggest patterns of fraud for further investigation by officials.
  3. Allowing data for research and official statistics – offer access to data to provide an improved evidence base for researchers both within and outside government, enabling new insights into the social and economic challenges that citizens and businesses face, and a better understanding of the patterns of need and use of different services, and the resultant outcomes which will help support the design and delivery of better services.

You can read more on these key strands by clicking here.

Government is proposing the legislation in recognition that when data is used effectively, public services improve, efficiencies can be made and everyone benefits from better information sharing.

It is intended to simplify and streamline the current system of legal gateways to make it easier to share information between public services where it is appropriate to do so and in the best interest of citizens.

Legislation for better use of data is helpful. But let’s not forget that putting legislation in place will only take us so far. To ensure public authorities feel confident to use permissive powers such as these, it’s absolutely crucial we create a culture where people have confidence and trust to share information when appropriate and where it will lead to better delivery of services and outcomes for citizens.

Here at the Centre, we’ve found a number of cross-cutting themes are emerging on how to overcome barriers to information sharing across multi-agency partnerships. These include;

  • Strong leadership to create an environment where good information sharing is a core value and to support staff to share without fear and to feel equipped and supported to do so.
  • Good communication to disseminate messages clearly and in language that is widely understood.
  • Development of stronger inter- and intra-agency relationships to agree when and what to share and to do so with trust.
  • Establishment of clear processes and procedures for good practice that promote the importance of information sharing and enable practitioners to navigate the system.
  • Personal and professional development to give staff the skills and support they need for sharing information well and with confidence.
  • Development of a strong and coherent partnership approach to risk and individual ownership of risk to support sharing with confidence and trust.

Confidence is vital if information sharing is to play its part in reforming public services. The Cabinet Office proposes a new criminal offence for unlawful disclosure. There is a real risk (as we know people are already nervous about ‘getting it wrong’) that the sanction of imprisonment, a fine or both may mean people are reluctant to use the new legislation at all.

One of the core purposes specified in the proposed ‘Better Use of Data’ legislation is to support the Troubled Families programme by enabling better identification of families with multiple and complex problems. These families are currently receiving support from multiple public agencies and would benefit from the Troubled Families programme, whose workers understand and respond to the needs of the whole family and co-ordinate support accordingly.

This brought to mind one of the local places we are working closely with, which is Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES). The Centre is supporting them with the practical implementation of information sharing approaches; for example within their Troubled Families (Phase 2) programme.

For B&NES, this is not simply about collecting more data: it is about what you do with that data which makes a real difference to the lives of local people in Bath and North East Somerset.

B&NES recognises that there needs to be a “changed culture around information sharing, to enable staff to share appropriately and proactively”.

The Connecting Families team in B&NES is finding that the multiplicity of problems they are struggling with means that the Troubled Families policy area touches on others,  such as debt management, domestic violence, health and well-being, and support into work.

B&NES’ Connecting Data programme intends to develop learning from the Connecting Families programme in order to build the case for better use of data about families experiencing multiple problems, and be able to turn more of these families’ lives around in future. (Click here to read our case study on multi-agency working in B&NES and check back to see further updates on our work in this area).

In addition, local places will want to share information within multi-agency settings that support getting individuals into work, intervening earlier to protect children at risk and to protect vulnerable adults. At the moment, these wider purposes are not explicitly included in the proposals. And because health data is currently omitted from the proposals, there are concerns this could limit the effectiveness of the legislation in delivering better public services in an increasingly integrated world.

If you have views on the proposed legislation then the consultation period is a golden opportunity to raise concerns and provide feedback on how to ensure the proposed legislation fulfils its intended usefulness and is future-proofed to remain valid long term. Click here to visit the Government consultation page.

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