Over the past few years, the government has launched a number of initiatives to promote data sharing between public organisations including the NHS, Whitehall departments and police services. The government's determination to overhaul information management was strengthened after a series of scandals, including the Victoria Climbié and Soham murders, which occurred after warning signs were missed because police forces and education and social services did not share information.
The past twelve months have seen a series of high-profile data leakages that have had the opposite effect - increasing public concern over the storage and sharing of its data in electronic form. This culminated last month in calls for the government to scrap a database containing the details of every child in England due to a report that suggested that it could not be secure. Just this week, the BBC Scotland's Investigations Unit revealed a series of data breaches affecting thousands of people - these included lost patient notes, information on sex offenders and compromised payroll data, plus the Information Commissioner reported 94 data breaches last year. However, the vast majority of these breaches are not due to hacks on the actual databases, but occur when individuals use insecure means to share information, or share information with the wrong people in the wrong way.
Information is only useful when it is shared, but this entails taking just the right data, packaging it in a secure, but usable, form, and ensuring that it gets to the right people in the right timeframe. If this can be achieved then the benefits will be enormous. If done correctly, information sharing will be the key to providing better public services for citizens - helping, for example, in the fight against crime and the provision of healthcare and housing.
Most government legacy IT systems were designed to collect and protect, not share information. As a result, many government organisations still rely on manual processes - shuffling paper documents informally around the office, printing, downloading or copying data onto hard drives, CD-Roms or networks - which not only increases costs and the risk of errors, but also makes cross-agency collaboration less efficient.
But information sharing between government agencies is in the public interest, as the Victoria Climbié and the Soham murders have already highlighted. And simple technologies, such as document management, already exist that address these concerns.
With notable advances in security around documents management, from encryption to policy protection and digital signatures to identity management tools, government agencies can be empowered to share information with confidence and accountability. By extending security to the document level, government agencies will be able to share information and ensure that data remains protected. Confidentiality, privacy and accountability policies travel with a document so that agencies can control, open, view, print, copy, or modify a document with the highest degree of confidence and certainty that it is protected. Importantly, should a CD of valuable data "go missing", you can set policy protection that instantly denies anyone access to the material.
It is true to say that information is the lifeblood of every government process but public confidence in them managing this information - both securely and accurately - is at an all time low. Government cannot be complacent and needs to put in place the often simple steps to make sure document and information management is not only accurate across departments but secure.
By Ian Cockerill, director of Public Sector Practice at Adobe Systems