Headlines: January 17th, 2007



Failure by public bodies to share personal data has been identified as a major barrier to improving customer care. Research to support the Prime Minister’s policy review announced in October 2006 suggests that to bring customer care in the public sector up to the best private sector standards it will be necessary to make changes to the law on data sharing. The research also indicated that in some cases internal procedures, including overzealous data sharing rules, prevent sharing of customers’ personal details.

The impact on service users of not sharing data can be severe. Following the death of a family member in a road accident, there were 44 contacts with government over 180 days. The widow and her late husband were in receipt of a retirement pension, disability living allowance, council tax benefit and housing benefit. The majority of the 44 contacts concerned amending these benefits and nearly half involved the family having to contact government regarding the same issue rather than government contacting them.

The difficulties resulting from the lack of data sharing are particularly acute for the socially excluded, adults with multiple problems such as mental health, homelessness, alcohol and drug problems. One of the greatest frustrations in trying to deal with their problems is having to tell the same story over and over again to agency after agency. Some individuals can regularly deal with as many as 30 different agencies, none of whom share information on that individual.

Members of a citizens’ panel, that will meet next month – see Publcinet 15 January – will be asked whether they would be in favour of relaxing current privacy procedures so they don’t have to repeat personal information to several different public bodies, particularly at times of great stress such as the death of a loved one. Their views will inform work across government looking at how to make data sharing easier across organisation boundaries so citizens get a better deal from the public services they use.

John Hutton, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is leading the review of customer care standards across public services as part of the Prime Minister’s policy review, said: “Public services must increasingly be based around the need of customers. A lot of progress has been made to tailor our services accordingly but current privacy procedures and working practices can sometimes still force people to have to convey the same information multiple times to different agencies.”