The Gallery: The Growing Data-Rich Opportunity to Transform Public Services

state house gallery

Better coordinated public services that recognize and respond to individuals’ needs and preferences would undoubtedly improve many lives. But when faced with the prospect of government bodies sharing and analyzing our personal data, many of us become uncomfortable.

This philosophical paradox is reflected in our everyday interactions with government. On the one hand, we complain that government is slow, bureaucratic, cumbersome and disjointed, forcing us to give the same information repeatedly to different agencies. Public bodies should share and collaborate more, we argue. At the same time, we don’t want more government looking over our shoulders and analyzing every aspect of our lives.

We want the best of both worlds.

The opposing views of data sharing were underscored by Accenture’s recent citizen survey. Asked if their family’s needs would be better met if publicly funded healthcare and human services programs were better coordinated, two-thirds (63 percent) of consumers said yes and just six percent said no. But when asked whether they were open to having multiple health and human services agencies share their personal data in exchange for a better level of service, less than half agreed, while one quarter said no.

In some respects, there’s a double standard for private and public sector organizations. Most consumers are comfortable with e-commerce utilizing their personal data to create an accurate picture of their wants, likes and behaviors. By running sophisticated analytics on personal data, companies can develop a nuanced understanding of customers’ unique characteristics and preferences and offer better, more targeted products. In the same way, the ability to analyze citizen data would mean that government agencies could create and deliver services that better cater to individual needs.

The potential for greater data sharing to create value across public services is huge. The benefits could go far beyond reducing duplicative data and faster access to information. But this means the government would be making more decisions about what’s good for someone based on better access to and understanding of data. Strong proponents of data privacy may prefer to avoid giving government that power. It’s a tradeoff, and one on which people’s personal positions vary widely.

Maybe the answer lies in giving citizens more say in how government, and private companies, balance our competing desires for personalization and privacy. Whatever the solution, at this point we need more open and spirited public debate, to see if government can move to new data-rich middle ground that uses the information to deliver better public services.

We should be stoking this debate now, because the potential benefits of data-sharing and analysis are growing fast. Five years ago, the analytics underpinning cross-organization data sharing were slow, cumbersome and expensive. Now technology and cost barriers have eroded, and processes that would have taken weeks can be carried out in seconds.

The message is clear: Many people want balanced cross-organizational collaboration and data sharing with reasonable privacy protections. Finding a balanced and enlarged vision and framework for data-sharing could bring a true sea change in delivery and effectiveness of human services. Nobody wants government to scrutinize their every move. But the advent of a data-rich world brings a golden opportunity to transform public services. Let’s not pass it up.

By Ryan Oakes, Accenture Health & Public Service

The Gallery is a forum for ideas and examination of matters facing state and local government. Readers, members of the media, academics or the business community are invited to submit guest columns to bailey{at}civsourceonline{dot}com. Member of the public sector? We’re interested in hearing from you too. CivSource does not endorse the views presented in The Gallery, but offers them in an effort to present more diverse coverage. CivSource will review all submissions but does not guarantee publication of all works submitted.