Service co-ordination possible under privacy laws: commissioner

By Harley Dennett

Friday October 9, 2015

Elizabeth Coombs
Elizabeth Coombs

New South Wales privacy commissioner Dr Elizabeth Coombs told a state parliamentary inquiry yesterday that NSW privacy laws, applied correctly, would not impact on a service provider’s ability to support those in need.

The inquiry is investigating whether government and non-government service providers are meeting the needs of clients, as well as trying to identify potential barriers to service coordination, such as privacy laws.

A previous hearing in August heard from non-government providers, advocates and researchers that current efforts in communities with high social needs lacked coordination due to factors such as information silos, incompatible technology, and differing organisational cultures. Client privacy was one of the reasons cited for those information silos.

Commissioner Coombs disagreed that the law was the real barrier to coordination:

“It provides ample opportunity for agencies to respond to the needs of communities, families and individuals in a coordinated and effective way. But there is a knowledge gap in the sector about how the privacy regime works and how it can be used to achieve the best outcomes for the community.  Educating the sector is key to resolving these issues.”

Coombs recommended the development of guidelines for the sector and improved training. She added that appropriate resourcing for her office could enable it to develop, implement and oversee their operation, which would go a long way to improving community outcomes.

“My experience in advising agencies confirms that these knowledge gaps can only lead to missed opportunities for service improvement. Good public policy outcomes and a respect for the privacy rights of NSW citizens are not mutually exclusive.”

The University of NSW’s Social Policy Research Centre had earlier this year produced a report for the state Department of Premier and Cabinet on the exchange of personal information by departments and non-government providers. It looked at three scenarios: children welfare; exchange of information between schools when children move from one school to another; and housing support for adults with mental health problems.

Professor Ilan Katz told the committee that while there were some technological barriers, most were cultural, with organisations or individuals who were risk averse.

“In other words, the organisation comes first and the client comes second in those situations. Organisations may have an over-determined view of privacy.”

Katz said appropriate education among practitioners was lacking:

“The only policy or legal barrier we found was that in the children’s area there have been recent legislative changes which have facilitated information exchange. It is not so much the change in the law but the education around that change that facilitated better information exchange.

“In the adult sphere there has not been any change in legislation and therefore there was quite a lot of confusion around information exchange about adult clients—mentally ill people and people with disabilities, for example—because that degree of training and facilitation had not happened in that domain.”

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