Will Government Connect improve data sharing?

Government Connect , as...

Government Connect, as with many government IT projects, has weathered its fair share of controversy since its launch.

The programme, driven by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), aims to transform the state of public sector data sharing. Officials hope this will provide a timely answer to the government's information security woes, in the shape of a cross-government secure network.

The project was met with scepticism from some IT chiefs. Some still have reservations and most admit there are challenges to overcome, but a cautious optimism is emerging as the project builds momentum.

The project will link up all local authorities in England and Wales to central government departments. It will provide a way of sharing data that officials hope will consign to history data nightmares such as HMRC's two discs that were lost in the post a year ago.

If councils and departments can share information on citizens across a network, the logic goes, they should no longer need to share data via post or unsecured e-mail accounts. At first councils will use the network to share data with DWP on benefits and pensions payments. In the long term there may be other uses.

The Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government (IDeA) says councils often act as the "front office" for central government. They have 80% of all contact with citizens and must share sensitive customer data with national agencies. The IDeA website says, "They currently do this in a number of ways - not all of which are secure."

Council CIOs have their work cut out, with the April 2009 deadline creeping closer. Each local authority has to comply with a code of connection before being able to join the network, with most needing work to get their IT security up to the necessary standard.

Steve Hopson, CIO at Cheshire County Council, says the deadline is "unlikely to be met" by many authorities, with costs being prohibitive. "The cost of gaining compliance with the code of connection is extremely high," he says.

"Many authorities will find they have not budgeted for this." He adds that grants available to help support the work are insufficient and will "merely scratch the surface."

Steve Palmer, head of IT at the London Borough of Hillingdon, also has concerns. "There is still a lack of clarity in terms of functionality and costs," he says. "Most local authorities who have signed up have done so as a result of DWP pressure.

"Anything that improves security and connectivity is to be welcomed but this project has a chequered history and confidence in it is lacking."

But although there may be reservations, other IT chiefs insist that a secure network with problems is better than no network at all. The Society of IT Managers (Socitm) is throwing its weight behind the project. Socitm's president Richard Steel, CIO at the London Borough of Newham, says he is "optimistic with qualifications" after managers with "a track record of success" were brought in to lead the project.

The public sector has to stop moving data around in the way that it does now, he says. It is not technology failures that have caused the headline-grabbing data losses, but human error, and efforts must be made to minimise the conditions that lead to losses.

"We are sticking our noses out a little, but we are throwing our weight behind the project," Steel said. "Something has to be done about secure data sharing. There are undoubtedly challenges, but we all have to work together to make Government Connect a success."

Glyn Evans, who leads the IT transformation programme at Birmingham City Council, shares the optimism. It may be hard to come up with a business case for a project like this, but he says the benefits will become clear. "Over the next couple of years, new ways of using it will emerge, and the network will improve data security," he says. "The project has taken a long time to get to where it is now, but we have got something that has potential."

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