‘Catastrophic’ impact of information sharing failures

By David Donaldson

Friday April 1, 2016

Failure to share information effectively between agencies can have “catastrophic consequences”, the report of the Royal Commission into Family Violence has found. It’s not news for Victoria’s Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection.

“It’s disappointing that it takes a royal commission to highlight these issues, because they’re issues our office has been pointing out ever since I was appointed,” David Watts told The Mandarin.

David Watts
David Watts

Privacy law is often blamed for different agencies being unaware of risks raised elsewhere. Stories abound of justice, drug and alcohol and child protection services, for example, failing to speak to one another and pick up clear warning signs that may have prevented serious harm. But, while the legislation is complicated, Watts argues it’s the overly legalistic and risk averse approach to privacy law, rather than the law itself, that’s the primary problem.

“Privacy legislation is based around a set of principles and we start making mistakes when we approach the principles like black letter law … rather than an interpretation in accordance with the objective of the act,” he explained.

“The scheme of privacy law right from the outset has been that a range of public interests override privacy and so privacy law was never designed to prevent information being shared when people’s lives were at risk.”

While family violence is, of course, not the only area where a lack of communication between services leads to poor outcomes, it can have particularly disastrous consequences. The coronial inquest into the death of 11-year-old Luke Batty at his father’s hands found that there had been a fundamental failure by services to share vital information. Judge Ian Grey noted:

“… the agencies assisting or working with Ms Batty did not collectively, in real time, know and share and consolidate the [discrete] pieces of information applicable to her situation. This is a fundamental point. Real time updated information sharing between agencies (including Victoria Police) is a key element in a fully integrated system, and in my view, is a necessary precursor to interventions which can be taken to promote safety and save lives.”

The royal commission report, released Wednesday, dedicates a whole chapter on information sharing. It argues services are failing the public by not talking to each other:

“The consequences when information is not shared can be catastrophic. Despite the significant role of information sharing in responding to family violence, there are a number of barriers that mean information is not shared as effectively as it could be.”

Government neglect in sharing information

David Watts says the top tier of the public sector has neglected to fix the problem.

“The messaging from the executive officer cadre has not been to encourage an information sharing culture,” he told The Mandarin. “There’s a lack of executive leadership at senior level.”

This culture of risk aversion has meant an over-reliance on lawyers and an avoidance by many of those who possess information of the sometimes complex and lengthy proceedings required to share. “Having lawyers as the exclusive arbiters of risk is an unproductive way to go,” Watts said.

This is not helped by government fronting up “comparatively nothing” to look after information properly. “We spend hardly anything on information management and governance and we live in an information age,” Watts said. “Our resource allocation to what is clearly a key issue is clearly insufficient.

“We need to equip executive officers with the right decision-making approaches to information sharing …”

“We need to equip executive officers with the right decision-making approaches to information sharing and to make them more confident about how to deal with information issues, including records management, which is very unfashionable, but we do need to do it in a digital age.

“I don’t think it costs a lot of money if we do it smartly.”

Watts welcomed the government’s acceptance of the royal commission’s recommendations. This includes the proposal to set up a Central Information Point, co-locating personnel from a range of agencies — including Victoria Police, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice and Regulation — who will be able to access their respective organisations’ databases to obtain and collate crucial information for managing risk.

“It means the information is aggregated at the same level as operational responsibilities are and that is likely to remove a whole range of bottlenecks,” Watts explained.

But he warned such structural changes must be accompanied by cultural shift. “To open the door doesn’t mean you walk through it,” he said. You can remove the formal obstacles “but it still requires people to navigate the information landscape with confidence”.

Watts’ comments align with those made by his New South Wales counterpart Elizabeth Coombs last year, who argued the problem is with misunderstandings of privacy law, rather than the law itself.

Perhaps NSW and Victoria have something to learn from the Australian public service. “The situation in Victoria seems to be degrees worse than in the Commonwealth,” Watts said. “The Commonwealth has worked out ways to operationalise privacy in a much more sophisticated way than Victoria.”

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