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Monday, January 15, 2007

Is it good to share?

I have to admit, I had always assumed that any data held by a Government department was shared with all other Government departments as a matter of course. Maybe I am just too cynical, or perhaps I have too much faith in the efficiency and effectiveness of Civil Service record keeping. Why that should be, I do not know. After all I used to be a civil servant.

So, we are now presented with a proposition from the Prime Minister that we have nothing to fear from consenting to a relaxation of the apparently "over-zealous" rules which stop Whitehall departments sharing information about individual citizens. Are there rules or is it just that they physically cannot do it?

I am sure that ease of access and the pooling of information will prevent duplication and enable key service departments such as the DWP to do their job better. However, it will also create a source of information on each individual that can be exploited by the State for its own purposes. The fears expressed by the likes of Shami Chakrabarti, that this will "allow an information free-for-all within government - ripe for disastrous errors and ripe for corruption and fraud," are well-founded.

More interestingly from the point of view of efficiency and effectiveness is the means by which this information-share free-for-all can be achieved - a government IT project. Given the Government's record on managing databases, there may well be a lot of public money spent, but this system is not going to be working anytime soon.

Update: The outrage shown by Tory Shadow Home Secretary David Davies at this proposal could perhaps have been tempered by the fact that this new initiative from Tony Blair was first suggested by the Conservatives.

Largely due to the pointer provided by my fellow Welsh Liberal Democrat South Wales West Assembly candidate, Frank Little, a quick google search found this statement from the then Conservative Minister for Public Service, Roger Freeman MP, on 3rd March 1997:

Madam Speaker, last November I laid before Parliament the Green Paper government.direct (Cm 3438) setting out the Government's strategy for the electronic delivery of central government services. This strategy forms part of the Government's Information Society initiative led by my Honourable Friend the Minister for Science and Technology, and complements our policies to promote the use of IT in business, in education and by the public at large, and to help this country adapt to the Information Society. Today I have placed in the Library a paper reporting on the results of consultation on the Green Paper and indicating the way forward to a radical change for the better in government service delivery.

He goes on to outline some familiar fears:

But concerns too have been raised. Some suspect that our aim is not to raise the quality of service but simply to cut costs, or to create a huge central database on individual citizens. Such fears are groundless. There are also concerns about data protection, and about potential marginalisation of disadvantaged people and disabled people.

Obviously, Tony Blair got his idea second hand, dragged down from a dusty shelf by a high-flying civil servant. It never ceases to amaze me how eerily accurate 'Yes Minister' really was.
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