Protecting public safety requires both more information sharing and better confidentiality protection, reconciling the two is a central challenge of joined-up government. New research from the Economic and Social Research Council has highlighted continuing communication problems and has identified the need to develop standards for best practice in order to tackle the problem.
The research reveals that senior civil service managers have attempted, through a series of uncoordinated and fragmented initiatives, to resolve these issues by imposing stronger formal regulation on information-sharing and confidentiality practices. These findings are the first systematic information that senior officials and other stakeholders have had on the impact of their initiatives.
A fundamental tension exists between media and public concerns about child protection, paedophilia and mental health care and the Human Rights Act, data protection legislation and professional codes. However the need to improve the ways and extent to which data sharing occurs has been proven in the failure of government agencies to talk to each effectively before both the death of Victoria Climbié and the Soham murders. These failures have highlighted the clear need for improvement in communicating information.
Professor Bellamy's research team have developed an innovative new theory to improve the co-operation between a wide range of professionals with different specialised training, working in a diverse range of organisations and using separate IT systems. By adopting a theoretical approach, the research found that informal factors such as mutual confidence tended to be influential and that in contrast formal regulation was less effective.
The researchers found, for example, that there are marked differences in professionals' willingness to share information: in mental health care, confidentiality is tightly protected within teams even if the teams comprise several professions. Within many fields of law enforcement, sharing of some kinds of information is less constrained by confidentiality concerns, but is often sustained more by individual officers bargaining for information than by rule-following.
The team conducted in-depth interviews with over 200 people working in 12 multi-agency partnerships. The research concentrated on the hard choices that staff are regularly forced to make between sharing unnecessary and possibly false information, and the risk that information will not be shared when it is essential to prevent death, injury or other harm.
Uncertain, inconsistent and hard to understand local information-sharing practices continue according to the research and more work is needed to establish patterns of regulation that recognise the potential richness of human interaction amongst professional staff in developing best practice.
Members of the public will continue to face real threats of unfair and unpredictable behaviour from local services and front-line workers who are operating in an environment without secure working structures that they can defend if things go wrong.
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NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research 'Joined-up Public Services: Data sharing and privacy in multi-agency working' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Professor Christine Bellamy and Professor Perri 6 are at Nottingham Trent University and Professor Charles Rabb at the University of Edinburgh.
2. The research project used the classic typology of organisations developed by Emile Durkheim to analyse information practise. The project team conducted in-depth interviews with over 200 people working in 12 multi-agency partnerships.
3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2006-07 is £169 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk
4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/
5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'Good'.
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