“Better Use of Data” consultation – our response

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 the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing.

The next phase of consultation sought a wide range of views on the proposed legislation and to have an informed debate on improving the use of data. The consultation closed on Friday 22nd April 2016, and it was an opportunity to provide Government with views and feedback on how public authorities can use data better to improve public services for citizens.

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

  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.

The Centre are pleased to have provided a response to the Cabinet Office on the ‘Better Use of Data’ proposed legislation, which we can share with you below. (If you would like to read the original consultation documents prior to reading our response please click here).

Centre’s response to the Cabinet Office’s consultation on ‘Better Use of Data’ legislation

Limited to Troubled Families:

In addition to Troubled Families programmes, 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.

Specifically naming ‘Troubled Families’ is restrictive and limits the usefulness of the legislation if it is exclusive to Troubled Families and doesn’t apply to other similar programmes delivered in multi-agency settings, now or in the future.

As suggested by some at the Cabinet Office’s consultation workshop in Greater Manchester this week [w/c 18th April 2016], the legislation could specify outcomes instead of specific programmes.  E.g. ‘Early Intervention’, ‘Support into work’, ‘debt management support’.

We query the length of time it will take to add new objectives to the legislation and that there is a risk the process could be inflexible and cumbersome. It would be helpful to describe the request-making and decision-making processes as soon as possible.

Scope of powers extended beyond public sector bodies:

In response to Consultation Q.3 “Should non-public authorities (such as private companies and charities) that fulfil a public service function to a public authority be included in the scope of the delivering public services power? “

It will limit its usefulness and its ability to be future-proofed if non-public authorities are not included. Increasingly LAs are partnering with or commissioning non-public sector authorities to deliver services, including those focused on prevention and early intervention to ultimately reduce demand on public services. Without access to information and data, organisations designing and delivering services can be restricted in the support they can provide and this limits the impact they can have.

Permissive powers:

As the new powers are permissive, information sharing will be very dependent on building strong relationships and trust across partners. We would welcome the Cabinet Office stressing the importance of data sharing to improve public services in its communications and messaging around the legislation.

Positive outcomes only:

In the proposal, the purpose of the objective is to improve outcomes for citizens and result in an offer of a service. But what happens if the data sharing, due to better targeting, results in some people no longer receiving the service, or say 15% of those whose data was shared, were deemed NOT eligible for the service?

Health data:

It will be important to keep in mind how the proposed legislation fits in with approaches to sharing health and social care data. The legislation is much less useful without health and social care data included and separate proposals for health and social care data could create tension.

What steps will the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health be taking to ensure consistency between the proposed Better Use of Data legislation and the National Data Guardian Review? How will any inconsistencies between the two be addressed?

Sanctions:

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.

Relationship with other legislation:

There is also a risk of unintended consequences; e.g. the legislation might erode (in people’s perceptions) existing common law powers to share information. The Cabinet Office needs to continue to provide reassurance about this in their messaging.

Communications:

We feel it will be important to focus on getting the messaging right for how the proposed legislation is adopted and used by public authorities and received by citizens.

Tackling fraud and debt:

Is there a differentiation made between ‘intent’, ‘genuine error’ or where people are simply leading chaotic lives?

We feel it is important that debt recovery services join up with existing programmes which focus on supporting vulnerable individuals/families and helping people with their debt management (public and private debts).

Culture for information sharing:

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.

We believe it is extremely important to ensure legislation isn’t viewed as a ‘silver bullet’.