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Sharing personal information about citizens can help improve services, but it is a delicate issue, says John Thornt...
Sharing personal information about citizens can help improve services, but it is a delicate issue, says John Thornton

Nothing sets the British public up for a confrontation like an invasion of privacy. When the government published a report in April looking at the future of privacy and data-sharing in delivering public services, the national press devoured it hungrily and regurgitated it as a 'Snooper's charter'. As e-government takes root huge amounts of data about citizens will be shared between and within public bodies. With this in mind how does local government go about dealing with the issues raised by

e-government? First, councils need to answer a few basic questions.

What does data-sharing in local government mean?

Personal data is held in various departments of the council and by other public bodies. So when applying for housing benefit, for instance, a citizen has to go to several sources to get details of income, proof of entitlement to any special allowances and details of pension entitlement. All that information is held electronically and with proper authorisation the council could bring it together rapidly on the citizen's behalf. The same is true for health records, tax returns, law enforcement records, driving licence information and so on.

If citizens want their data to be shared and councils can do it, what is the problem?

Service users increasingly expect councils to have up-to-date information that they only need to provide once and they expect services to be joined up in a way that makes sense to them. At the same time, the public does not always trust the way councils and the rest of the public sector handles personal information. They will only feel confident if they know there are strict, clear and appropriate controls over how it is stored and used. They will also want some control over when data is brought together and for what purpose.

Does the government have a way through this impasse?

There are real and very understandable sensitivities about matters of privacy. The importance of the government's report is that for the first time it brings together in one study all of the key legislative, policy

and technical issues. It is the first step in establishing

an appropriate balance between privacy and data


Which side does the report come down on - more privacy or more data-sharing?

The Improvement & Development Agency agrees with the government that the two objectives can be achieved without contradiction. As we move into an information and knowledge-based economy we need to debate these issues and find ways to reconcile them. The public sector will need to take a much more strategic approach, which includes building greater public trust, improving the accuracy and reliability of personal data, using new technologies and modern management to support more secure and more joined-up data use, and operating within a clearer legal framework.

And that means what in practice?

The report puts forward a number of proposals which could be integrated into the e-government implementation strategies. The report is worth reading in full, if you have the time or there is a summary on the IDeA website. The main proposals are:

-- A trust charter as a public statement of the use public bodies will make of personal data supported by codes of practice, information-sharing protocols and management guidance

-- Appoint a senior manager with clear responsibility

for the handling of personal data

-- Consider appointing a chief knowledge officer

in order to draw together the range of legislative,

policy and business issues about information management

-- Adopt an international standard for information security - only Luton BC has so far sought and gained this accreditation so there is work to be done to examine existing arrangements in local government

-- Develop smart cards as a means of authenticating customers of council services

-- Promote consistent decision-making in public services as regards personal data

-- Legislate to enable public bodies to share personal data with the consent of the data subject. Also legislate to establish data-sharing gateways for areas such as crime and fraud where consent is not an appropriate mechanism to enable data-sharing.

This all sounds a bit daunting. What help will there

be to guide councils through?

IDeA is committed to working with the Lord Chancellor's Office in consulting on and implementing the recommendations.

Over the next few months we will be working on de-mystifying the issues examined in the report and the next series of our e-champion workshops will consider how to move the debate forward.

Privacy and data sharing issues are often seen as a major obstacle to the implementation of e-government.

It is therefore crucial that we have an intelligent and public debate about these issues and put in place the controls and transparency that will maintain the trust

and confidence of citizens and service users.

John Thornton

Director of e-government, Improvement & Development Agency

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