Data Sharing in the UK Public Sector, the Norm or the Exception?

Since I last wrote about data sharing in the public sector there has been a lot of interest about the growing volumes of personal data all organisations are accumulating. In the private sector customer data is treasured, analysed and reused (with the customer’s permission of course). Companies talk of Big Data and hail it as ‘the next big thing’. Follow #bigdata or Google it and you will see the bold claims that are made for this new era.

But what about the public sector? We still hear of councils and other public sector organisations resolutely pronouncing that they can’t share data because the law prohibits them. Coinmarket When I wrote the first article in August 2012 I set out what I thought was the most challenging of the 4 barriers to successful data sharing. Just to recap these were:

Legal
Cultural
Organisational
Technical
The most challenging? Culture, people just don’t want to change and will use the other 3 to support this. But we all know that the technology can do whatever we want it to do, so people tend to hang on to the ‘we can’t share because the law says so’ argument but cannot really back it up when challenged.

So it was a great relief when Dame Caldicott produced her second report earlier in the year ‘Information, to share or not to share’ and started to deconstruct some of the ‘myths’ but perhaps more importantly suggested that culturally we should move towards ‘how we can’ and move away from ‘why we can’t’

Dame Caldicott added a seventh principle to the six she established in her first review in 1997

The duty to share information can be as important as the duty to protect patient confidentiality.

This seventh principle was added in response to the growing concern that in healthcare at least, barriers were being erected that were putting patients at risk.

So if our colleagues in healthcare ‘get it’ what about the other public sectors? One recent case brought to my attention is the DVLA’s information about registered keepers of motor vehicles. As part of the Civil Enforcement process (parking tickets to the everyday person) local authorities can request details of registered keepers from DVLA so that they can serve a Notice to Owner (NTO) when a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) remains unpaid.

For the moment let’s not comment on the 20% of cars that have outstanding PCNs that have no registered keeper, or the most recent revelation that some drivers are still driving despite having amassed 42 penalty points http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23967547 and focus on what happens to the information provided by the DVLA.

The DVLA contend that information supplied by them to local authorities for the purpose of Civil Enforcement of PCNs cannot be used by the authority for other purposes. This may be true, so for example routinely adding this data to a ‘citizen’s index’ might be unlawful. For example, a matching of unpaid PCN information to Blue Badges issued (an exercise that has routinely produced some interesting results and successful prosecution for fraud, would appear to be unlawful as the data supplied by the DVLA was being used for a purpose other than the one it was registered for. As yet I haven’t seen if a registration under the Data Protection Act for DVLA supplied data would be acceptable to the ICO.

But what isn’t unlawful is to use the other information that the local authority holds to trace people who have not paid their PCNs. In a recent study I was involved in, of the 9,000 unpaid PCNs that had been returned ‘Gone Away’ over 1/3rd of those people still lived within the council area and of those, over 1,000 were in council owned housing. So some part of the council knew where the person was, but not the Parking Services people who were using out of date DVLA information.

Sharing data between services in the council netted another £200,000 of unpaid PCNs. Despite the emotive talk of ‘cash cows’ that often accompanies any discussion on parking, I think most would agree that it is beholden on councils to use whatever information they have to maximise their income and reduce administration costs. After all, collection rates for PCNs hover around 75% which is probably the lowest collection rate of anything local and central government collects, so there is ample room for improvement. Strange how the media interest in this subject never brings out the poor collection rates, but that’s another story.

Returning to the topic of Big Data, most commercial organisations are beginning to tune into the value and importance of this to future customer satisfaction and retention. Local councils are just beginning to grasp this concept and re-evaluate the way they have implemented CRM systems. The initial use as a ‘front office’ system to manage and monitor phone calls is now giving way to more elaborate systems that can tell the council what its customers actually want.

Be this from self-service web based system or face to face and telephone contact, modern systems can now identify exactly what customers want and provide empirical evidence to enable the council to plan future service delivery. The current push by the public sector to provide services that are ‘digital by default’ offers the potential for significant cost savings, but, providing self-service intelligent forms on the web site is only part of the story.

If councils are going to weather the current ‘austerity storm’ chances are they will have to STOP doing some of the things they are currently doing. Enabling self-service can just provide ‘mess for less’ rather than truly transform services.

Without the relevant data, and implicitly the sharing of data, how will local authorities plan to deliver what their customers want, AND dynamically change this as requirements change? Or will they just use the trusted methods of Citizen Surveys back up by some good old Mosaic demographics data?

One recent development that may further the debate is the changes to the Freedom of Information Act that came into effect on 1st September 2013. These changes allow individuals and organisations to demand data sets from local councils in a re-usable format. Although this data is anonymised the fact that the data can be re-used may bring about a glut of FOI requests in the next few months. The changes also allow the local council to charge for the supply of this re-usable data, so this might well fuel the ‘cash cow’ argument, or further the debate about data sharing.

I suspect this debate will continue for the next few years and there will be many barriers to overcome until we achieve what Dame Caldicott so eloquently expressed.

The duty to share information can be as important as the duty to protect patient confidentiality

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