Does data protection stifle innovation

I was reading an interesting blog post by Seth Godin recently. He was describing a trip to A & E and was arguing that the arrive-describe-queue-wait-waitsomemore-gettreated model of care was ‘pre-digital’. His point being that the technology now exists for us to interact electronically with the hospital as soon as we have our accident in such a way as to either; avoid the trip in the first place or, to at least divert you to a medical facility best able to quickly deal with your particular need.

Thinking this through most of our public services (and many private ones) are pre-digital. Inter-agency interoperability is very rare and even within agencies there is often a tortuous debate about the “purpose for which we collected the data and whether we would be in breach of the Data Protection Act…” We do this in the name of protecting personal data. As a result genuinely innovative service propositions never take off. Those of us who work in public services kill off many half-baked ideas just because they are illegal, and never get to try them out (albeit that they would still actually be illegal).

As a customer of an organisation I expect a provider to keep my information safe and not use it for purposes which disadvantage me. However I am quite happy for my data to be shared with anyone if I get some advantage and my life is a little easier. I am of course unhappy if someone is using my data for ‘bad’ purposes. Admittedly the distinction between the positions may at times be a bit grey (targeted advertising good or bad. Discuss)

So I guess the question is, should we change the Data Protection Act to include a clause to say that all public agencies can share your data unless you explicitly opt out? A kind of “trust me to look after you” kind of approach. This is not actually that unreasonable. We all consume real services on that basis. Who really questions where their rubbish actually goes – we assume that the council is going to act ethically and responsibly and not just chuck it in a field down the road. We assume that the HMRC collect our taxes and distribute them to government departments and not use it for massive parties. Yet when it comes to data holding there seems to be a greater desire to protect people from an evil most of us don’t actually believe to be there.

If public services are more trusted with data than the private sector the door is opened for a range of innovative new services and efficiencies. In the long-term we could even move to a position whereby if you choose to opt out of sharing then you have to pay more for your services. Insurance companies now charge for amending your address on your policy and yet the multiplicity of public agencies we deal with do not. If you allow your data to be shared then no charge (and it is up to the public sector to build systems that realise the efficiency of free data exchange), but if you choose to be an exception then you pay for it. The obvious challenge here is around whether you believe the public sector is a single entity or not – I think most people see public services as one thing and would like them to be as joined up as possible.

Those people who advocate data should be kept in separate locked boxes so that the wrong people can’t see your secrets are perhaps missing the prosaic point. Working in a council we are not remotely interested in your in-growing toenail, or whether you got stopped speeding on the A34 a week last Wednesday, and in any event we would still collect your bins.

The sad reality is that most people’s lives are fairly dull. If leveraging the dullness means we can make our services more efficient and effective for most people then we should take that opportunity, rather than trying to protect each other from the prying eyes of people who really aren’t interested in our imaginary secrets.

Designing services (and laws) for the many based on the desires of the few is a fast track to inefficiency and creates a corrosive ‘can’t do’ culture. The private sector deal with this issue very efficiently. If you want an exotic service architecture that they find unprofitable to service they simply say no, and exit you as a customer. We can’t, and shouldn’t, do that in public services but we do need to maximise ways to improve our efficiency.

Given that the public sector is not likely to suddenly start being stupid with personal information is it unreasonable to change the law to allow us to make our services cheaper and more effective for our customers?

 

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About iansthoughts

Chief Operating Officer at DEFRA, and former council Chief Executive. All views expressed are my own and not formal policy of my employers current or past.
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One Response to Does data protection stifle innovation

  1. Applause…a well argued case Ian and echos conversations I have daily inside and outside my organisations. We should do something about it.

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