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Addressing Wicked Social Problems through Digital Government – We need an enlightened approach to data linking

A recent article in the Canberra Times reported research findings from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). The AIHW found teenagers within the child protection system are far more likely than the general population to enter the youth justice system in the same year. People involved in the child protection and juvenile systems would not be surprised by this finding, but what made this research particularly interesting and different was the research methodology. As reported by the Canberra Times, the approach used by the AIHW for this research was to link data from the child protection system and the juvenile justice systems across four jurisdictions. By linking the data, patterns emerged providing deeper levels of insight which may lead to a better understanding of the causation of the wicked social problems surrounding teenagers under child protection and within the juvenile justice system. Once causation is understood, policy and service delivery interventions can be better targeted, leading to improved social outcomes at an individual and societal level.

It may seem obvious that child protection data and juvenile justice data would be linked, especially from a research perspective, so why has this not been done before? Without diving into the detail behind the study methodology, it is safe to assume there are numerous legislative, policy, regulatory and administrative barriers to linking data of this kind, especially when it has been collected by different government agencies. And for a country like Australia where there is also the absence of a unique ID system it also means there is significant data processing work has to be performed to link people’s record between systems – is John Doe in the child protection system the same John Doe appearing in the juvenile justice system? It is likely the AIHW had to jump through many hoops to get permission to use data in this way as well as addressing some complex technical issues.

The value of the AIHW’s research into this deeply complex social issue involving teenagers at risk is undoubtable, yet around the world we continually see barriers to this type of data linkage. In countries like Australia, with a history of resisting national identity schemes, people are challenged in seeing past the perceived risks of data sharing and linking.  Even in countries with national identity systems, the excuses for not linking data collected by different agencies include data protection laws, privacy concerns and civil liberties. Each of these issues cannot be dismissed lightly under the heading of ‘the end justifies the means.’ However, in this world of digital government and high performance computing power, we should be working towards finding a happy medium where governments can use digital data to radically improve their performance in their duty to protect vulnerable people. This could be done via technology to enable data to be linked in a transparent manner to provide demonstrable public value. A national ID system should not be regarded as a pre-requisite for creating these linkages. Digital technology can enable the safeguards that need to be in place to preserve the civil rights of the general population.

This brings me to the question of what should be the primary focus for digital government? There are the easy changes like making government services easy to access around the clock via an app or a website. Automating payment processing is another good initiative. Making government digital services conform to a consistent set of standards and comparable with the best in class commercial organisations is admirable and achievable. But is this really a case of chasing the low hanging fruit or in commercial parlance, are we leaving money on the table, by focusing only on these transactional level initiatives? Think about what else might be discovered about people’s circumstances if we could link data across education and health with other social data like child protection and juvenile justice in a similar manner as the AIHW research.

Deriving public value from digital government is buried in the mountains of data collected every day by government agencies.  This data, if it was linked for the purpose of public good could provide evidence and indicators leading to insight into causation at both an individual and cohort level, for some of the most wicked policy problems.

A follow-on to this type of research is to operationalise research findings by imbedding them, for example, within the information systems for child protection and juvenile justice administration to enable a new predictive capability. This predictive capability creates the potential for early intervention programs for achieving better social outcomes.

There is some positive news from Australia on this front as the government takes additional steps to open up government data.  In James Riley’s report named “CSIRO shakeout is all about data” new CEO Larry Marshall announced new research priorities that includes an organisation-wide focus on data science. “What science can we create that will help our nation adapt to and even benefit from digital disruption? Clearly Cybersecurity, open data, and anonymisation of data sets are the gel that will enable greater sharing of data to deliver better outcomes faster,” Mr Marshall said.

Open data and the capability to link government data are important steps on the road to addressing wicked problems.   Societies acceptance towards linking data will be determined by the public value derived and how the risks are managed.    The SAP Institute for Digital Government will continue to examine the legal, administrative and social barriers to data linkage and will work with our research partners towards to finding solutions to achieve a happy medium.  The vulnerable people in our societies are waiting for government, the technology industry and civil society to stop making excuses for why data linkage can’t be done.  They are waiting for us to adapt our thinking to the opportunities of the digital world and to focus our digital government efforts on addressing the wicked problems they face.  While we need to improve access to government services and make them world class and comparable to the commercial sector,  let’s also tackle the hard problems so we don’t end up in the situation where a young teenager says “Thanks for the easy to use website and the cool phone apps, but I need you to help me understand why I keep getting into trouble with the law and why it seems I have no hope of ever finding a good job?”

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