Interview: Stephen Curtis of the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing explains its role to provide guidance and promote best practice
Stephen Curtis believes that stories can be powerful, especially when it comes to dealing with the business of sharing information for public services.
He tells one of a man with a lot of problems who kept missing his appointments for kidney dialysis. The clinicians liaised with social services to find he was prone to anxiety, but that music could help him manage it. So they helped him to get an iPod, and he began to turn up every time.
Another concerns an ambulance service who had noticed one old lady who was prone to falls at home. Again, it liaised with social workers who visited her house, discovered there was an oddly placed step, and painted a line on it to make her more aware. The emergency calls to take her to hospital came to an end.
Speaking with UKAuthority at the Civica Expo conference, Curtis places an emphasis on such stories in his role as director of the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing (CEIS), the year-old body that aims to provide guidance and spread best practice in the fields. It has been funded by a handful of central government departments, but its focus is largely on local services in England and how these can be improved by better sharing of information.
The focus of our work is about the influence of people, behaviours, leadership and how they impact on information and data sharing,” he says. “For that reason our starting point is about what public services are trying to do.
“It might be about tacking youth violence better, or supporting vulnerable people, or getting people back into work. It's about which agencies and services need to work better together and what role information plays in helping to deliver more informed services.”
He points to two aspects of sharing – at case level for individuals, and in an aggregated form to highlight patterns in what influences the demand for services – and says the public sector needs to get better at both.
It prompts the question as to where he sees the problems: are the barriers largely around technology, regulatory or cultural issues? He sees one as strongly influencing the others.
“If you see the people who are service providers taking responsibility for the information, and they are able to properly articulate the information sharing needs, then if there are technology or legal issues that arise from it you will have good clarity about the impediments.
“I would say that if you start by working on the leadership, culture and the right people taking responsibility for information needs in the service areas, then the other things will flow out of that.”
Curtis acknowledges the way that anxieties around privacy have sometimes held back efforts to share information more effectively, but suggests these can be overcome with an emphasis on transparency.
“The more transparent you are the less privacy will raise its head,” he says. “You've got to be clear with people who use services on what is going to happen. If they are told you are going to pass on the information to people who can provide a service they will not be shocked.
“That has to be designed into services, and it's important for service managers and public sector leaders to own information issues. They have to design it in to enable information to flow between services.”
Similarly, the need for high quality data needs to be an integral part of the service, and Curtis believes that relationships between the different groups, and a full understanding by their people of why it is important, can make a big difference.
So far we've been talking about public sector organisations, but the issue can become more complex when the third sector is brought in to provide a service. There have been claims that charities struggle to deal with technical and compliance demands of sharing data with councils and NHS organisations, and this makes it harder to coordinate their efforts.
Curtis recognises the complexities and that third sector bodies, especially the smaller ones, can struggle to deal with these. His solution goes against the prevailing trend of increasing volumes of data, and has implications for sharing purely between public sector organisations.
“I would say there is scope across the board for simplifying the information governance framework. I've not come across anything that starkly needs changing, but there is a lot of complexity.
“It's partly because there is so much in the public sector, a lot of which may not be needed. So if you had less data, collecting only what's really needed, it would simplify the data landscape and we would need a simpler governance framework around it.
“I think there's a lot that can be done to simplify it. Information and data is going to play a bigger role, but that doesn't mean there has to be more of it.”
Real life implications
Ultimate responsibility for this lies with the relevant government departments, but Curtis says CEIS can show the real life implications, which goes back to the storytelling. He wants to show how the frameworks for information sharing play out on the ground for the organisations delivering services.
“We can tell the stories and hopefully influence the way guidance and practical steps are developed,” he says. “And it's not just getting to the government departments, but the professional organisations and regulators that have leadership roles.”
CEIS has recently begun a couple of new workstreams, one looking at the impact of devolution, the other at the related issues in serious case reviews. It suggests there will be more stories to come, but the real test will be in reducing the complexities and providing the right guidelines and transparency in information sharing.