Governments should more actively promote the advantages of information sharing and push for broad approvals to link data in the public interest, if agencies are to realise near and long term success in providing citizens with simpler, easier services and better public outcomes.
At a recent Canberra executive forum hosted by The Mandarin, leaders from the Australian Public Service and the ACT Government came together to discuss the information challenges of government.
Speakers at the forum were: the Director-General of the National Archives, David Fricker; Australian Capital Territory Chief Technology Officer, Al Blake; Records and Information Management Specialist at the Department of Finance, Katharine Stuart; and Director of Public Sector Industry Solutions at Objective Corporation, Sonya Sherman, formerly Director, Information for the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation.
Held under Chatham House rules, forum participants frankly observed that narrow permissions, allowing the use of data solely for the purpose it was initially collected, continue to prevent the public sector from delivering efficiencies and value-added services to citizens.
These constraints often heavily limited their ability and the possibilities to reuse information for other valuable purposes.
Participants noted that these restrictions can generate tangible opportunity costs around:
- better evaluation of program outcomes;
- analytics and linked data to generate new insights and prevent problems;
- or sharing information resources so citizens don’t have to navigate multiple public agencies that require similar information to deliver different services.
Although privacy principles are enshrined in specific legislation, additional restrictions are often embedded in other acts. For example, the information collected from now-superseded paper immigration arrival and departure cards may only be used for narrowly defined administrative purposes.
While some larger states have enacted legislative reforms to support public sector information sharing, and try to open opportunities for cross-sector data analytics, the Commonwealth is only now beginning the task to understand and connect its information assets.
Many government services rely on information supplied by citizens. The processes behind these services are often designed with only a single view of the way that information will be used. This means information must be requested again, to support a different service or process.
A view was expressed that government had “shot itself in the foot” by not considering the potential value of information in a variety of contexts. There is a need for more public debate around a broad-based provision that allows reuse of information for defined activities agreed to be in the public interest or offering wide scale public sector efficiency; and designing processes that seek consent for reuse in order to offer value-added services to individuals.
A mature approach
New Zealand was cited as an example of a mature approach to information reuse, with Statistics NZ mandated to manage data integration and the related privacy issues. The NZ Integrated Data Infrastructure project provides a powerful public purpose authority to use government data for community benefit.
Australia’s federal government in 2017 launched a similar project through the Australian Bureau of Statistics called the Data Integration Partnership for Australia. Several states also have established specialist data analytics centres to promote exchange and matching of administrative data.
State governments such as NSW, Victoria and South Australia have also buttressed the data integration units with legislation setting out protocols to facilitate information and data sharing.
It was noted that the NZ model is the result of extensive public consultation over the past 10 years, led by the State Services Commission and the Privacy Commissioner. The most recent survey indicates that public attitudes toward data sharing remain cautious but support increases with transparent information governance. For example, Approved Information Sharing Agreements publish details of who can access the data and how it is used, building public trust.
There was a call for government agencies to more actively call out and promote the use of shared information and data that has delivered better outcomes, and thus counter some of the anxiety created by frequently reported cyber breaches and privacy disclosures.
This would highlight the community benefits that flow from a culture of open data. It can also be used to demonstrate and explain the protocols governments follow and engage the public when deliberating on information access and usage issues.
This in turn builds citizen trust in governments’ ability to responsibly use richer data in public custody and the information it generates.
Sharing with sensitivity
The issue of digital confidence and information literacy among staff was also highlighted.
It was noted there is not a lot of upside, and lots of potential downside, for officials dealing with a decision to share data or information. Combined with a traditionally strong culture of protecting sensitive information, this often means long delays in combining useful data.
It was suggested that controlled process automation can industrialise information gathering and sharing to create an underlying confidence in agencies seeking to innovate and transform.
Building information governance into business processes by design can apply rules and policies “behind the scenes”. Line staff don’t have to be information experts or make complex decisions to share and manage information correctly during common activities such as ministerial briefings, Cabinet submissions or public access requests.
The importance in the digital era of agreed ontologies and schema for mapping relationships between information resources was also highlighted. Ontologies provide a richer understanding of information resources within the wider government context. This enables more transparent information governance and more effective discovery, sharing and reuse for agencies looking to build a powerful information led culture and capability.
The challenge for public sector leaders is building a governance framework that promotes sharing and reuse of government information assets for public value, while still maintaining public trust. This is particularly so given citizens don’t typically have a choice when dealing with governments, and in many cases are being required to give agencies personal information.