Government has a clear duty to ensure that the most vulnerable in society get the help that they need, at the right time from the right services. The formulation of each of the objectives for information sharing under the public service delivery power was guided by this principle.
Out on the road…
In the last few months Alastair Bolton and I, from the Data Policy and Governance team at DCMS, have travelled across the country to promote the public service delivery power within Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act (DEA). Between us we have clocked up many miles taking in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cambridge, Northallerton and Taunton.
What we wanted to achieve from our ‘roadshow’ was simple - we wanted to help increase understanding of how the public service delivery power works, how it is relevant to people who work with vulnerable families or individuals and encourage take up. We also wanted to know if there were barriers to using the power which we are unaware of in Whitehall.
We’ve spoken at a range of forums, including Troubled Families Coordinator regional meetings, the Troubled Families Programme Board and the core cities group for the programme.
Multiple Disadvantage Objective – supporting delivery of the Troubled Families programme
When speaking with colleagues delivering the Troubled Families programme, unsurprisingly, the focus has been on the multiple disadvantages objective. This allows the sharing of personal data between specified bodies to help identify individuals or households that face two or more social or economic problems.
The previous complex legal landscape meant it was often difficult for public authorities to understand the true position of what data can be shared when delivering services for families. I’ve learnt that it was not uncommon to have local partnerships lacking vital information from one or two local partners because it had not been possible to get information sharing agreements in place.
This meant the true scale of families’ problems was unknown, and they did not get the support they needed, or those families had to tell the same – sometimes upsetting - story repeatedly to multiple services. Now there is a single piece of legislation with a clear objective covering multiple partners, whilst safeguards are in place to ensure personal data is processed securely, proportionately and lawfully.
It was great there was such interest and enthusiasm for the multiple disadvantages objective in every meeting that Alastair or I attended. There was a clear recognition that it can support the delivery of the Troubled Families Programme’s core principal of whole family working and thereby deliver better outcomes for families.
It’s key that we now translate this enthusiasm into finalised information sharing agreements (ISAs) using this legal gateway so that we can demonstrate how it is being used.
Key themes emerging from our engagement
A number of common themes have emerged from the various engagements. First, we have engaged with the Information Commissioner’s Office about their plans to update their data sharing code of practice. Based on these discussions, we are hopeful that they will draw from the codes of practice associated with the DEA - which set out procedures to ensure organisations exercising the DEA powers are complying with the Data Protection legislation - as they update their own code.
I know from my travels that having consistency between the different codes and ensuring compliance with data protection legislation are, rightly, at the forefront of people’s minds when they consider using information sharing powers.
On the other hand, it's become apparent that some organisations are more reluctant to make their data available for fear of data breaches or risks to data confidentiality. There remains nervousness around data sharing in some quarters which appears to have been intensified against the backdrop of GDPR.
Case studies of usage of the multiple disadvantages gateway, as they emerge, can play a pivotal role in building confidence around use of the power and help overcome some of these cultural barriers. And so I would urge you to share your examples with each other and with us in Whitehall.
Furthermore, the code of practice for the public service delivery power provides guidance to practitioners on the disclosure and use of information under this power as well as explaining the legal framework. It's essential that anyone looking to use the power has regard for the code. The answers to a number of questions that have been put to Alastair and I are already provided in the code.
Keep talking – we’re listening
Continued dialogue between government and groups like Troubled Families Coordinators can also have a big impact in encouraging usage of the power. Organisations should always seek their own legal advice if they are unsure whether a proposed use of the public service delivery power is lawful.
But maintaining a dialogue can help to provide clarity in certain areas or dispel certain concerns. For example, it's already become apparent that there was a lack of awareness of the override within the DEA which provides that data disclosures under the public service delivery power do not breach any other restriction on the disclosure of information, however imposed.
Surfacing these types of issues can help ensure more informed discussions with legal advisors and others within various organisations and increase the prospects for ISAs to be developed.
The public service delivery power is a permissive power which means the onus is on local authorities to work with the relevant bodies to develop ISAs. But as I have said everywhere I’ve been, DCMS stands ready to provide whatever support it can to get ISAs over the line.
Senior Policy Adviser
Data Policy and Governance team
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Phone: 07519 294402
Data Policy and Governance team
Depaertment for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport