Privacy and Data Management in Government Part 1

Talking and listening to Jim Harris of OCDQ Blog has got me thinking about data management. Specifically I’m thinking about the challenges facing data management in the New Zealand government sector – where I currently work. Initially when I started here, and saw some issues relating to data management, I thought: “yep, I’ve seen this before – the issues and the answers are the same as in the private sector.” Now that I have been working here a bit longer, I realise that this is only half right, that there are some issues that are specific to government (or the New Zealand government) and that some solutions common in the private sector cannot be straightforwardly applied here either.

One of the significant challenges facing data management in government is navigating the restrictions and constraints introduced by privacy legislation. Why does this matter and how does it impact data management? Well, to take just one example: you can’t create a single view of a customer (or citizen) if the interpretation of privacy law is that you aren’t allowed to match pieces of  information about the same person if they are obtained for different purposes. I thought I’d write a series of short posts on this topic, starting with this one on why privacy is a bigger issue for government agencies than it is for the private sector.

So, why do privacy concerns and legislation impact government agencies more than non-government organisations? Here are some of the key reasons that I have identified. (Most of these factors apply generally to government activity internationally, and not just in New Zealand.)

  • As government agencies (especially government departments) the expectations around compliance to all forms of legislation are higher from our citizens and other stakeholders – and rightly so.
  • There are a number of specific pieces of privacy legislation that directly constrain government.
  • A large driver for privacy legislation (and the concerns that are behind that legislation) is the fear of the power of the state: a fear of “big brother” as it were.
  • Government agencies include certain constitutional roles and functions which centre around custodianship of information including the privacy aspect.
  • Government agencies hold some of the most important information about individual people that there is such as criminal records, intelligence, investigations and key identity information.
  • Whereas most customers voluntarily enter into arrangements with private companies that include providing personal information (often in exchange for money or products), citizens are often compelled to provide information to government agencies.

Thus we have a combination of forces: public expectation; fear of negative publicity; legislation; policy; the view of information as a national resource or treasure (taonga); sensitivity; and importance. These all lead to information privacy being of greater importance to the public sector than it is to the private sector.

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