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Public bodies told: Swapping data feels good, but you must be careful

Eurim gives cautious welcome to EU plans

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Sharing data on public services could have serious consequences unless the material has been valued, maintained and protected and the original reasons for its collection have been taken into account, the Information Society Alliance (Eurim), has warned.

In a report (PDF) on the quality of public sector information, the group says that the drive to put central and local government data online, open to public scrutiny, has revealed the long standing problems with quality that lie behind the reluctance of some departments and agencies to trust one another's data. It adds that it is important that decisions on spending cuts are based on good quality information.

"Meanwhile demands from regulators and government agencies for the collection and retention of data that is not required for operational purposes, but might be needed in future, reduce UK competitiveness and add to public sector costs," says the document.

"The scale and nature of current duplication, inconsistency, confusion and error, both random and systemic, derives from failure to apply the disciplines of information management. The consequences include personal tragedy, avoidable suffering, inefficiency, waste and policy decisions based on mythology, hunch and guesswork, rather than the well informed analysis of timely and reliable data."

Despite its concerns, Eurim says that it welcomes the EU's new Open Data Strategy, which aims to make public sector data more freely available.

To help improve the quality of public sector information, Eurim recommends that:

  • Government departments need to recognise that they are comparatively minor players in a mature, global market for personal and business information, including identity registration and customer identification services and analyses of transactions and patterns of behaviour.
  • The information they collect and maintain should be clearly relevant to the service delivered and aligned to the objectives of the organisation, using collection and validation processes that do not get in the way of efficient service delivery.
  • Information should be a treated as an asset, to be valued, maintained and protected.
  • When information is re-used, the context in which it was originally collected needs to be understood, including its provenance, for example, who collected it?
  • The public sector needs to rebuild its skills to manage and use information, at all levels, including technical and professional, as a matter of urgency.
  • The demise of the Audit Commission and pressures for regulatory rationalisation, including information assurance and data protection, suggests the need for a single authoritative and independent guardian of public sector information and information management standards, under the aegis of the public administration select committee.

Dr Edwards Phelps, secretary general at Eurim, said: "While the government should be applauded for its aim of opening up data on public services to save money and stimulate economic growth, it is absolutely essential that government departments understand the risks associated with data sharing and the procedures that should be followed."

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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