Information sharing in government - stop scaremongering and let it happen

The Telegraph has reported that the government is considering implementing an information sharing system across Whitehall.

An information system similar to customer databases used by Amazon and Tesco would share citizen details across departments and the wider public sector, in hopes for government to become more agile and intelligent.

Details could include: driving licenses, criminal records, university details, social information and energy consumption.

Aggregating and mining citizen data would allow the government to better monitor economic growth and population movements, identify troubled families and elderly people in need of support, and cut fraud, said the Telegraph.

But the following line in the story angered me:

“It will also trigger fears that data could be lost, in the wake of a notorious error in 2007 that saw CDs carrying the child benefit records of 25 million people go missing in the post.”

I feel that this is just needless scaremongering.

Of course IT systems like this need to be secure, but in the cold light of day, digital technologies are far safer than sending a CD full of personal information in the post.

Why are we so focused on the “what if” hypothetical scenarios, rather than the “if we don’t” consequences? For instance, across many NHS Trusts, health and social care systems are often not joined up. A child might be on a watch-list by social services because they think he/she may be subject to abuse, but if the child winds up in hospital or with the police covered in cuts and bruises, the two services can’t identify this because the services are not joined up. Dare I say the words “Baby P”?

That is a very real, yet extreme example, so let’s take it down a notch to the simple act of changing your address. Imagine a world where you fill in a single online form, and all government departments, local councils and associated organisations know you’ve moved house.

This is the world of joined-up IT services – making life simpler. So stop scaremongering and let it happen.

In the documents seen by the Telegraph, the government stated: “People tend to assume that Government can share data between departments to complete simple tasks, and are surprised to learn that it cannot.”

Just please Whitehall, don’t hide behind this assumption that people already think this is happening – make sure you are clear with citizens about your plans to avoid another debacle.

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Yes, but with very strict restrictions. I think that people tend to assume that public servants *who have legitimate reasons* can access *the necessary data* and otherwise, not. Neither of these things holds true. We don't want Sharon Jobsworth, temp admin assistant at Blogstown Borough Council, to be able to nose round the medical records of celebs or anyone else. We probably don't want records sold commercially, but if this happens there must be a clear public interest and it must be tightly controlled. Shroud-waving around Baby P doesn't cut it as an argument to "let it all hang out". This needs to happen but it also needs to be done very carefully.
Here is a list of UK Public Sector data losses: When they stop having a cavalier attitude towards the public's personal information perhaps people might feel comfortable with them storing it. And then of course we have "mission creep". You start out introducing surveillance laws to spy on terrorists. You end up with those laws being used far more often to spy on the contents of the public's refuse bins than on terrorists suspects. Frankly, I am stunned by the author's naivety. Perhaps when the system she supports is used to track and report on all articles journalists produce that don't support the government's line she'll think again. But oh yeah, it'll be too late then.
Of course, I definitely think there should be strict rules and restrictions with a database like this. But I think it's also important to remember that human error (loosing CDs and USB sticks as in the wikipedia page pasted in the comments) shouldn't be compared to sharing information over a secure IT database. It's like comparing oranges and apples.