The Power of Information Sharing in Government

Unlocking the power of data for better citizen-centric decision-making

By Dan Finerty, Solutions Lead Information Management SAS Canada

Government is no newcomer to Big Data. While the relevance and implications of Big Data may have changed, the fact remains that governments have been collecting and generating vast amounts of data for years. Unfortunately, government information systems have historically been built in silos where data from one government function is held separate from data for other government functions.

Through the years, a culture of data ownership rather than data stewardship has evolved. The perceived obligation to control and protect an organization’s data has impeded the ability and willingness to share information across the government enterprise – even when these data assets are critical to improved decisions and services to the public.

All the while citizens are demanding better citizen outcomes – asking governments to use all of the information available to make the best decisions for all types of government operations.

Dan Finerty
Solutions Lead Information Management
SAS Canada

All the while citizens are demanding better citizen outcomes – asking governments to use all of the information available to make the best decisions for all types of government operations. Unfortunately, in many cases the operational, tactical and strategic decisions made in government are not based on all of the information that might be pertinent to the situation. The road block it seems is enterprise data sharing or a lack thereof.

Better government data sharing can help the government by reducing fraud to better managing assets to improving citizen services. But for governments embarking on an analytics-based decision making for better outcomes journey -two critical questions have to be answered:  

1.Is the information to be shared intra-government – between different organizations?

2.Is the information to be shared extra-government – to the public at large or private organizations?

What’s more, there are multiple issues that will need to be addressed regardless of who the ultimate information consumer happens to be, such as:

1.Do I have the appropriate governance policies and oversights to ensure that I respect privacy and security compliance requirements?

2. Do I understand the most likely uses of the information that is to be published?

Not an easy mandate. But success is possible and one government is showing the world how.

The New Zealand Government:

The New Zealand government has been recognized for their initiatives around “harnessing the economic and social power of data”. A world leader in the trusted use of shared data to deliver a prosperous, inclusive society, the New Zealand Data Features Forum explores how New Zealand businesses, government, researchers, and the public can safely share data and use it to build a prosperous New Zealand.

With the release of their final paper, they are setting out an agenda to significantly advance New Zealand’s ability to unlock the latent value of our data assets and position them as a world leader in the trusted and inclusive use of shared data to deliver a prosperous society.

The key to the New Zealand government’s success is that it treats data as a strategic asset committed to igniting proactive information sharing to drive better decision making. The foundations established to support this initiative were based on four pillars[i]:

1. Value: including growing the skills of data scientists and innovators

2. Inclusion: including raising the public awareness and capabilities

3. Trust: including establishing privacy and security “by-design”

4. Control: including genuine informed consent

There have been several enormous benefits due to intra-government information sharing. Take for example the governments success in transforming social welfare with analytics. Tasked with providing social support and services to over 1 million New Zealanders and more than 100,000 New Zealand families, The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) is New Zealand’s largest government agency. It spends $22 billion a year providing child protection and youth, family and employment services to more than a million New Zealanders in need. But with data showing that a startling 13 percent of the working population is on an adult benefit – many of whom had been on benefit for a decade – the agency knew a change was needed.

In 2010 the agency began examining ways of reducing long-term benefit dependency. MSD’s research uncovered that a third of its total liability was attributable to those who entered the welfare system under the age of 18, and a further 40 percent was attributable to those who entered between 18 and 20 years old. It became clear if MSD was going to significantly reduce benefit dependency, it needed to focus its efforts on struggling young people.

With analytics at the heart of welfare reform, MSD is using its huge amount of information to provide better support to those that need it. It has transformed the way MSD targets its service-based investments and has enabled the agency to concentrate efforts on those who need it most. This translates to greater savings of taxpayer money as well as better futures for people and their families.

After just a few years, early results of the investment approach have been positive. Benefit figures are at a five-year low, and with projected savings of $1 billion over four years, other government agencies are looking to follow in MSD’s footsteps. Most importantly, the program has led to a dramatic decrease in people requiring welfare and being assisted in gaining meaningful employment.

The foundational pillars to the success of such programs includes increasing awareness of both what information is available and how to use the information. Analytic information is quite different than reporting information or summary information. While reporting information is the foundation to finding the hidden insights in information from multiple sources; it is the hidden insights that enable the innovation that provides improved citizen outcomes.

Yet another great example is how accurate diabetes data has helped the New Zealand Ministry of Health provide appropriate and timely care. New Zealand's Ministry of Health found it difficult to accurately estimate the number of cases in the country since there was no consistent data collection across all general practices and hospitals. With the help of SAS' data analysis capabilities, the ministry created a register to accurately predict the prevalence of the condition and help design effective public health policies to support quality clinical improvements.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health was able to integrate information from six different data sources and use SAS Advanced Analytics to identify both those with diabetes and those with the highest prevalence rate.  These insights enabled the Ministry of Health to focus their policies on the health policies for these groups.

The exceptional work done by the New Zealand government is being copied around the globe as governments everywhere are looking to provide similar results to their citizens. In fact, the Ontario Government has pledged its “commitment to the people of Ontario to engage, collaborate and innovate” as it looks to build a “government that freely shares information, unlocks the power of data in a digital age and brings more voices to the decision-making table.” A future paper will examine the progress of the Ontario government in its Open Ontario initiative.

Final thoughts:

As the New Zealand government has demonstrated, analytics can help save money, drive efficiency, and improve citizen services all while protecting sensitive data. The possibilities are truly endless, however, the power of analytics can only be unleashed once governments realize the importance of information sharing to enrich the lives of citizens and transform the way government is run. And that starts with breaking down the culture of data ownership and building a proper infrastructure to securely manage data as an asset.

To learn more about how analytics is helping to fight fraud, enhance child welfare services, improve health outcomes, policy decisions and laws read this conclusions paper on leveraging IT investment to strengthen government workshop:

Originally published in Public Sector Management Magazine.