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What does devolution mean for information sharing?

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 16

Nicola Underdown, head of engagement at the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, discusses the challenges and opportunities presented by devolution.

Information is rightfully acknowledged as one of the major assets for those trying to improve outcomes for service users while also making the most effective use of the limited resources of the public purse. In the past, efforts to improve the way information can be shared and used have focused on legal or technological approaches, but the introduction of the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing has added the ‘human’ dimension, supporting change to organisational culture. But public policy doesn’t stand still, and the increasing importance of devolution presents new challenges for us all. 

A new level of freedom and responsibility 

Devolution is the word on everyone’s lips, as local places (and central government) explore the possibilities it provides in how services are designed, delivered and funded. Local places taking control of how services are delivered is nothing new, but devolution provides a new level of freedom and responsibility to take decisions about local priorities, as well as creating greater accountability – whether shared by partners, or individually owned – at local level. Information, and how it is shared, is a vital part of that picture. 

Much of the learning that we in the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing have already captured about how to share information effectively will be of ongoing importance as local places continue to share information to understand local need, to design services, to deliver them differently and to monitor the impact. Devolution, and delivering services in a more integrated way, will mean that local places need to place information sharing even more firmly at the heart of their day-to-day working, which will involve thinking about the skills, capacity and organisational setup that is best placed to support these new ways of working. 

GM Connect 

In Greater Manchester, for example, the establishment of GM Connect demonstrates that the level of ambition evident in GM’s devolution plans also translates to information sharing activity. The initiative aims to drive a new approach to information sharing by developing a more joined-up approach to each citizen’s interaction with local public services, reducing the burden on the individual and service providers, whilst also providing opportunities for trends to be analysed in order to allocate resources and target services more effectively. 

But the local variation which inevitably occurs when powers are devolved brings challenges to information sharing, too. In some areas of service delivery such as health, the need for national accountability will continue to bring demands for information to be captured and shared consistently, which may make it difficult to realise some of the efficiencies anticipated around better local use of information. Central government and national agencies may also find themselves challenged to engage with and respond to multiple locally-specific information demands, where each devolved area develops a tailored approach to information sharing. 

Cross-boundary issues 

The challenge of cross-boundary issues – where service users have a pesky habit of crossing geographically-devolved service boundaries – also provides an obstacle to information sharing. This is not a new problem, and many services have already grappled with finding solutions to cases such as vulnerable children moving across local authority boundaries, so learning does exist which can help illuminate the issue – and the Centre will use that learning, and our own research, to help local places to think through the best ways to resolve it. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge, though, is that nobody is quite sure what devolution will look and feel like in practice. The extent of local variation will mean that it is increasingly important to understand not just what is happening within a local area, but why and how – as it is those lessons which will be of greatest value to other places, who are approaching devolution with their own priorities, timetable and approach. Those questions – of why and how – are the ones which the Centre has sought to answer since its inception, which has meant the evidence base about the role of information sharing in public service reform has grown in depth and complexity. As devolution develops in pace and scale, making better information sharing the solid foundation on which it is built will help local areas to save time and resource, and will ensure that the huge benefits on offer can be realised, both locally and nationally.

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