Data sharing


by David Moss
August 2008


Wouldn't it be better if (WIBBI) government departments shared data? Public services could then be more effective. And cheaper. And customised, or tailored, to the individual.

It's a seductive WIBBI. Sharing sounds like the sort of thing pleasant communities do. The public is always a deserving recipient. Service is a humble and dedicated vocation. If the service offers good value for money, so much the better. Recognising each individual's unique requirements squares the circle – a universal service which is at the same time trained with laser precision on the particular.

The Cabinet Office set out the case for data sharing in its November 2005 paper on transformational government. The Social Market Foundation (SMF) published an article about the public services sharing data in the Guardian in January 2007, and the New Local Government Network (NLGN) published a paper on it in August 2007.

The SMF article inadvertently makes it very clear that the benefits of sharing data are very unclear (please see response #1 here, also available here, Jan 19 07, 7:29pm). For example:

  • The CRB have access to all sorts of data and yet they have failed to identify some guilty people as criminals and they have wrongly identified some innocent people as criminals.
  • The tax credits system has access to all sorts of data and yet it seems to overpay by about £2 billion every year and causes anguish when the money has to be clawed back.
  • The Child Support Agency had access to all sorts of data and the net effect seems to have been to spread misery throughout its parishioners to such an extent that the agency has now been wound up.

The theoretical benefits of data sharing do not seem to be translated into practice.

Which suggests that there is something wrong with the theory. That is certainly the suggestion on the Ideal Government website – that there is something mathematically wrong with it.

The Cabinet Office, SMF and NLGN present the warm light and soft focus view of data sharing in theory. BBC Radio 4's File on 4 presented a quite different view in July 2007. In practice, they said, we currently have "silo government" in the UK. Nothing happens after inter-departmental meetings called to agree on data sharing initiatives. Sometimes government departments don't even bother to send representatives to the meetings. There is a gap between theory and practice.

The theory is that the efficiency of public services can be improved. That is one side of the coin. But in the hands of NLGN, it is the other side of the coin which is emphasised. Their paper amounts to an attack on public servants, who are accused repeatedly of not knowing their job. They are also accused repeatedly of squeamishly and naïvely obeying the law by observing the strictures of the Data Protection Act.

NLGN should recognise that people expect public servants to obey the law, even if NLGN do not. No further comment is required on that point.

On the other point, the Cabinet Office have themselves contributed to this critical attitude to public servants:

56. It is likely therefore that the planning for this era will be based upon a vision that sees citizens and businesses increasingly serving themselves at home, in work and public places and on the move; public servants truly dependent on technology to discharge their professional roles ...

If public servants are dependent on technology, what is the value of their experience and of their dedication?

The theory is completed – to the extent that it is – by the addition of the National Identity Scheme (NIS). Both NLGN and the Cabinet Office insist that transformational government depends on the accurate identification of everyone:

39 (7) Identity Management: government will create an holistic approach to identity management, based on a suite of identity management solutions that enable the public and private sectors to manage risk and provide cost-effective services trusted by customers and stakeholders. These will rationalise electronic gateways and citizen and business record numbers. They will converge towards biometric identity cards and the National Identity Register. This approach will also consider the practical and legal issues of making wider use of the national insurance number to index citizen records as a transition path towards an identity card.

They may insist on it. But they can't deliver. It is a pipe dream. When Sir David Varney claims that the National Identity Register (NIR) will be a "single source of truth", his mysticism is misplaced. The National Insurance Number database is thought to have 9 million people on it who can't be accounted for. Far from a single source of truth, it is just one example of several sources of confusion.

The NIR would be different, it is alleged, because it would use biometrics. But the biometrics chosen are utterly unreliable. It would not be different.

The NIR is the responsibility of the Identity & Passport Service (IPS). And so far, IPS have failed to convince the UK's banks and its major retailers that they stand to gain any advantage by using the NIR. They have failed to convince the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. There is no evidence that DCSF or DIUS plan to use the NIR. And Scotland has just snubbed IPS, stating that it prefers to use the health records database for its census. Not surprisingly, the list of prospective suppliers to the NIS is dwindling.

The public may be similarly well advised to place no trust in IPS.

In this they are assisted by the repeated losses of personal data from public and private sector organisations.

No trust in IPS. And no trust in data sharing. Because if this is the practice, the theory must be wrong.

David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2008 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd