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Troubled Families and the Digital Economy Bill

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Data Sharing, Government Data Programme, Making better use of data, Policy, Public Service

Sarah Henry, GM Connect, Manchester City Council

Life is complicated; for some, extremely so. Although no two stories are alike, there are some tell-tale signs that individuals or families are struggling. Imagine poverty and hardship, struggle paying bills and rent leading to depression, anxiety and substance misuse, inability to take care of your children and sometimes brushes with the law – and often several issues go hand-in-hand. Things don’t start off this way, but they can quickly spiral out of control and before you know it, the teachers are concerned, Children’s Services are knocking on your door, and everything has just gone from bad to worse with no hope in sight.

This situation is bad news for the taxpayer too. There are now children at risk, there is criminal activity and maybe unemployment. On top of benefits there is now a high cost to funding social workers, police officers and health professionals with funding diverted from services that everybody needs or enjoys – from fixing potholes to maintaining parks.

The answer is seemingly obvious: intervene early and prevent the situation from escalating. Easy, isn’t it? Apparently ‘we all know who the families are’. But do we? How would we? Families don’t wear a special badge signalling that they need help, and often, they may not ask for it. Instead, they become known to someone somewhere because something bad has happened. It could be domestic violence, a lost job, it could be a neglected child or maybe a pupil that has stopped attending school. Either way, at this point we’ve missed the opportunity to intervene early. By now this is a full-fledged Case with statutory duties attached to it.

So what can be done? How can we intervene early and prevent this inevitable roller-coaster?

This is where data sharing, and the new public service delivery data sharing power proposed by the Digital Economy Bill, comes in; and if we add a dose of 21st century technology, we can save lives and deliver excellent value for money to the taxpayer.

Different agencies hold different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and the catch is that it is impossible to know, until the data is shared, whether we have a situation on our hands or not. And here is the other thing – the families themselves may not know that they need help because they have never been in this situation before. They can’t know that they are twice as likely to suffer mental ill-health following a job loss or that their children are less likely to achieve at school if they are in care. They may not know that if they are out of work for over two years they are more likely to die than return to work, nor do they know that unemployment increases the risk of violent crime. Nobody has the benefit of hindsight!

Without the Digital Economy Bill, which provides a clear gateway for all public services to share data to support vulnerable people, public services have a problem – they don’t know that they should be sharing data to support families holistically because they can’t ask other public services what they know about a family. On the other hand, if they don’t share data and things go horribly wrong, they get criticised for having not shared the data.

But there is hope. Technology allows us to bring data safely and securely together and tell us which families need our help. The data can also be analysed to let us know what works, what doesn’t and what outcomes are likely with and without interventions. The public service delivery power will help provide a clear legal framework about what can be shared and with whom. It provides the safeguards to ensure that sharing is done in a consistent, fair, transparent and secure way.  

Data can lead to happier, safer and more fulfilled lives for people who may need a little helping hand. This Bill paves the way for making this possible. 

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  1. Comment by charlotte posted on

    I completely agree, I would like to see data shared within the same organisation as a matter of urgency. Unfortunately my grandfather has been sent home from hospital for palliative care and for a number of weeks we have still received appointments and letters from other parts of the NHS, which obviously are not applicable if they looked at the full set of data. This adds to our families distress and could so easily be avoided.