‘I’d rather go to jail for sharing too much information than not enough’

Image: Paolo Marconi

Talking to a room full of child protection practitioners at the launch of our work with Brighton and Hove City Council recently, I outlined the story of Patchwork to date.  The response was great – I couldn’t have hoped for more enthusiasm and participation from everyone there.  We had a full house and even a potential fire hazard at one point, until we made more space for the nearly 90 practitioners that turned up.

It was a proud moment sharing our journey with Patchwork so far and it’s clear that designing the app with practitioners instead of at them has led to a product that meets their needs.  No one questioned the point of Patchwork – all the questions were asking what it does and what more it could do (answer: plenty!).

As you can imagine, a lot of the questions were about information security.  Is it open to just anyone?  How do you stop people randomly searching for others?  And of course people wanted to know if they could upload their case notes and use it as a multi-agency messaging system.  This is where my heart sinks a bit.  Technically can we do that stuff?  Of course!  In reality will we be able to do that stuff?  Right now it seems a couple of years off.

The problem is Information Governance.  I don’t have the background to go into the detail of it, but our work on Patchwork has introduced us to a moral maze (or is that a legal labyrinth?) of Information Governance issues.  The law (or is it policy? or guidance?) is confusing to say the least, but more confusing is the way that the public sector’s policies seem set up to prevent good working links between different agencies – health, police, local councils, voluntary sector, housing associations, private companies, fire service and even individuals like parents and carers.

This post is not a rant about how bad the policies are, or how the law should be changed.  It’s a call to local authorities and other public sector agencies to invest in their Information Governance teams.  Investing in anything right now is a tall ask but if there’s anything that can save money in the medium to long term it’s having an all-star, red-hot Information Governance team.

I know what it’s like – you see ‘Information Governance’ on a budget line and think ‘That’s got ‘cut’ written all over it’.  After all, who really knows what those guys do?  Didn’t we just invest in Sharepoint?  Wasn’t that supposed to solve all these problems and mean that information is flowing round the organisation like a well oiled machine? (How’s that working out for you by the way?).

Here’s what a top-notch Information Governance team should be doing:  working out how local authorities can share information with other agencies (and vice versa) without compromising people’s privacy and security; thinking about how to work with cloud computing and the security and information implications of having data hosted outside of the council; helping staff in services understand how to use the web safely; helping you figure out how you can stop investing in big expensive systems and start running lightweight web-based apps.  I’d like to see more suggestions in the comments…

Most local authority Information Governance teams are only a couple of people strong if you’re lucky, and those we’ve encountered in the NHS seem to be about the same.  They’re overworked, under-resourced and operating in a world that is rapidly dying.  No wonder their default position is to say ‘no’ and to operate an approvals-based system that leaves you guessing at what might satisfy their standards.  They don’t have time to work together to find solutions and ways to break through the barriers, they only have time to highlight risk.  Furthermore they work in a field that is tabloid heaven.  If something goes wrong it’s their responsibility (legally) and their name in the Daily Mail.  The fear of blame is endemic in the public sector and leads to restrictive practice all over the place.  But that’s another post for another day.

The point is that it’s easy to blame Information Governance teams for not being progressive enough or for constantly blocking innovation.  But good information governance is essential to keep services running in a web-enabled world, and it’s the last thing that should be running on a shoestring.  It’s time to invest in professionals who know their stuff, have in-depth knowledge of web technology and security, and have time to support the organisation in how they use technology and use it right, not whether to use it at all.

If this post had any influence at all we’d see 400 councils rushing out to recruit their own Information Governance teams.  But in reality a district probably doesn’t need its own team, and in many ways even a county doesn’t.  It would be way more interesting to see local authorities and other public agencies investing together in a shared Information Governance resource, perhaps at county or city level.  They could afford more and better advice and the advice would be applicable to a region rather than a fragmented agency-by-agency basis.  That would put organisations on an equal footing and create the conditions for multi-agency working to be successful.

Meanwhile, back at PatchworkHQ we’ll be spending the next 6 months trying to work through the information governance issues associated with letting practitioners from different agencies just see who else is working with their cases.  The title of this post is a quote from a social worker who refuses to let the absurdity of current Information Governance rules dictate her practice, and we’re fortunate to work with many others who feel the same.



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