By Bill McAvoy, Quicksilva

Plans to increase data sharing across government departments have been in discussion for at least a decade. Whilst we’re seeing more collaboration taking place between government agencies we’re still not close to the levels of data sharing envisaged by policy makers. 

The NHS is successfully leading the way in making information sharing a reality with its NHS Care Records Service (CRS) and Data Spine. There are even suggestions to extend the National Care Records Service’s reach to integrate with other European health services.

Small pockets of information sharing also operate between UK social services, children’s agencies, police and education, but security is a key concern for citizens. At the same time as these early efforts at information sharing are underway civil liberties groups are seeking assurance that personal data will be shared ethically and that risks to privacy and potential data abuse are minimised. But is there a viable way to achieve information sharing without designing a “single massive database”?

What’s driving the information sharing agenda?

The desire for better public services is at the heart of the information sharing agenda – both for the individual and for society as a whole. Some of the national drivers for change include a range of central government papers including ;Transformational Government’, ‘Every Child Matters’, ‘Our Health, Our Care, Our Say’, and ‘Strong and Prosperous Communities’.

In addition, the Comprehensive Spending Review outlines how government agencies should assign spending priorities to provide value for money. The vision is to create an integrated, person-centric system that can provide support and care strategies, ensure resources are pooled effectively and enable collaborative working between government departments and agencies, plus other partners including voluntary agencies and the private sector.

Information sharing is about improving public services at the point of delivery, thereby solving problems at the first point of contact. In addition the sharing of information is intended to enable the personalisation of services so that they are relevant to individuals. The success of this model of public service delivery hinges upon being designed around the local community’s needs and, importantly, it should not be imposed from on high by central government.

To date, data sharing between agencies has largely been in the back-office around functions such as HR and finance. Moving forward, information sharing needs to shift radically from back-end to front-end service delivery to citizens. Private sector businesses such as Tesco and Boots have successfully used customer data to add value for themselves and their customers, sharing it horizontally across their businesses. The public sector could do well to learn from their example.

Where information sharing has taken place in government there have been notable successes. For example, since 2004, the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) has linked to the Motor Insurance Database, run by the Motor Insurers Information Centre to check that vehicles are insured, and to the computerised MOT Test Certificate Database. This simple-to-use system is a good example of the private and public sectors working together to provide the citizen with a better user experience – not forgetting that it benefits the DVLA and insurance companies too.  

However, there is still uncertainty over how information sharing technology might work in practice. Creating links between government agencies need not involve ripping and replacing legacy systems. Emerging service delivery models should be developed by integrating people, processes, technology and information while striking the right balance between risk, cost and value. In fact, pulling together accurate, relevant and timely information from disparate systems within one organisation need not even be particularly technically complex.

Start small, think big

For integrated services to operate effectively they must be supported by a robust information sharing architecture. This should be a local community-focused information sharing approach and must ensure that citizens and private and voluntary sector organisations have access to only the relevant data when appropriate.

The information sharing architecture can range from the relatively uncomplicated exchange of data files between agencies through to a more complex model focusing on knowledge management. However, data sharing does not need to rely on a large single national database.

To gain value from information sharing, data needs to be exploited to present a single person-centric view which is mapped to life events across agencies. This does not necessarily mean all agencies have access to all data at all times, but that the data be shared only when needed and be kept separate at all other times.

Ultimately, the citizen is the owner of their personal data and they will want to have control over the why, when, where and by whom access is given. In addition, authorisation to access this personalised information should be controlled through a role-based model allowing secure delivery through multiple channels – internet, mobile devices, and other emerging technologies.

The technical landscape across a disparate community is often complex and challenging. However, with expert design, information sharing can be achieved by making use of pragmatic solutions that share data between local and national systems. Organisations need to take small steps to achieve their goals. There are a lot of early wins that can be made by looking at processes that create value for citizens quickly and easily.

Agencies should also consider incremental integration of their data systems over time and build on their existing foundations without trying to reinvent the wheel. Doing this in bite-sized chunks will deliver greater value to the organisation and to the citizens it serves. At a simple level, integration can be readily enabled by using messaging software to create links between organisations. Work is already underway in this area for the Connecting for Health programme (CfH) ensuring that GPs and pharmacies are collaborating to deliver more efficient patient care via the Electronic Transfer of Prescriptions (ETP).

A citizen-centric future

Information sharing initiatives should encourage organisations to take stock of what is currently in place and exploit their previous investment where possible. If existing systems are providing value then it is important that they form part of the future information sharing architecture.

In future, the health, police, social services, voluntary and private sectors will need to collaborate in ways they’ve never contemplated before – using shared infrastructures, pooled budgets and integrated purchasing. It seems challenging, but can be achieved successfully with the right planning and approach. What is certain is that better information sharing across UK government agencies will lead to more personalised, more efficient, joined-up services. That’s got to be good for everyone.

Quicksilva is an independent UK supplier of integration systems and services with a focus on healthcare. For further information about the company please visit: