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To share or not to share – government agencies, personal information and public attitudes

To share or not to share – government agencies, personal information and public attitudes

How today’s exception may become tomorrow’s norm, writes Tim Green of Unisys.

In my experience working in and with police agencies, criminal intelligence is the data they are most willing to share if they can do so legally.

Tim Green, Unisys

“Digital transformation” is the buzzword inside government agencies worldwide. It’s fundamental to their efforts to use digital technologies to both improve the delivery of services to citizens and increase the efficiency of their internal organisations.

But digital government is about far more than simply putting current citizen services online. It involves fresh thinking about what services are delivered to people – and how – and may require current services to be offered in new ways, or being able to deliver new services that were previously not possible – particularly by working with other agencies to streamline services and remove red tape.

Fundamental to this is the concept of “joined up government”, where departments and agencies communicate efficiently with each other and act together for a common purpose. While technology is key to enabling this data sharing, more importantly it requires a fundamental cultural change.

But achieving this cultural change is challenging.

The New Zealand Government recently introduced Smart Start, an integrated digital service operating across multiple agencies including the Ministry of Social Development, Internal Affairs, Ministry of Health, Inland Revenue, Plunket and NZ Midwives. The initiative makes it easy for parents to see what they need to do before and after their baby arrives, keep track of developmental progress, monitor healthcare, register births and update their Working for Families application. It has proved very popular with new and expectant parents, and data is only shared between agencies after they have given consent.

The latter point is critical: government operates at different levels, and local, national and individual agencies have very specific charters about what they are responsible for and those to whom they are accountable. This is not a structure that naturally promotes the exchange of information. There is a fear of losing control of data and for some a perception of not receiving due recognition or attribution of their contribution.

Unisys has conducted research into the feasibility band acceptability of sharing information by government agencies. At a recent Security Summit, attended by senior representatives from a number of New Zealand and Australian police, customs and border security agencies, we polled delegates to find out how they felt about sharing data across agencies.

They cited the biggest barriers to sharing sensitive data between government agencies as being able to manage who has access to the data, and securing the data itself.

Yet technology tools are readily available to manage access control and secure data by dividing physical networks into micro networks or “micro segments”. This approach logically separates parts of an organisation’s infrastructure to minimise the impact of breaches as even if there is unauthorised access, the intruder can see only what’s in that one tiny segment. So it is possible to share data securely. The real barrier is the fear of losing control of the data after it has been shared.

However, when asked about sharing sensitive data with other organisations specifically to support criminal investigations, the respondents cited legal restrictions as the biggest barrier, followed again by managing who has access to the data, and securing the data itself.

In my experience working in and with police agencies, criminal intelligence is the data they are most willing to share if they can do so legally. Agencies, police officers and analysts genuinely want to see the offenders held accountable (provided that sharing data won’t compromise an ongoing operation or expose a source or methodology).

The good news is that the majority (75 per cent) of public servants polled said their organisations will share limited data with other departments on a case by case basis. When there is an operational imperative, such as a major incident or a life-threatening situation, agencies are quick to share information – both formally and informally – as there is a common mission that overrides misgivings about sharing.

This suggests that finding common missions across agencies is the key to creating a culture that supports data sharing.

Tim Green of Unisys
Tim Green of Unisys

When there is an operational imperative, such as a major incident or a life-threatening situation, agencies are quick to share information – both formally and informally – as there is a common mission that overrides misgivings about sharing.

Interestingly, while security was cited as a barrier to sharing data, only 19 per cent said they would share more data even if it could be secured adequately. While security is a legitimate concern, it is not the primary barrier. Neither is technology. The real requirement for change is creating a culture that wants to share data where it makes sense, promoted by policies to actively support sharing data, and key performance indicators for both agencies and individuals, to actively drive a change in behaviour.

We have also recently polled citizens in a number of Asia Pacific nations on their attitudes and found that in many countries citizens support greater information sharing. The Unisys Joined Up Government Survey1 found that the majority of citizens in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore strongly support government agencies and departments sharing common information about citizens such as address, birthdate and tax number. The environment is ripe for government agencies in these countries to explore how data sharing could streamline and improve government processes and service delivery.

Conversely, the same research found the majority of citizens in Malaysia do not support data sharing. This may mean that the Malaysian government needs to do more to inform and reassure its citizens about what data would be shared, who would have access to it and for what purposes, and how the citizen would benefit.

Overall we are seeing change. Many governments are actively promoting a culture of data sharing. And New Zealand and Australia are amongst the leaders in exploring how to balance privacy issues with the public benefits that sharing information can bring. The Australian and New Zealand privacy frameworks are very similar.

At the heart of each is a set of Privacy Principles governing how information is managed. For example, both frameworks contain principles that govern the use and disclosure of information.

In New Zealand the Office of the Privacy Commissioner providesa range of guidance materials that can be used to support understanding about the Privacy Act in New Zealand including online training modules, and guidance about the various mechanisms through which agencies can share information, The Office is currently working with a number of government agencies to facilitate better information sharing through better understanding their information needs.

The momentum for Joined up Government is growing and this will drive greater desire to share data between government organisations. The technology is ready and the required cultural change is fast on its way.

Tim Green is the subject matter expert for intelligence analysis for the justice, law enforcement and border security domains for Unisys Asia Pacific.

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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