Friday, December 27, 2002

Change is hard ... especially if Data Protection is somewhere in there

I've been catching up on my reading over the holiday. December's Government Computing has "Changing address - The data sharing dilemma" as its front cover and feature article. It seems (and this is backed up by legal advice from at least two sources, stimulated by a request from Shepway District Council) that if I want to tell my Local Council that I've changed my address, then I have to tell all the individual departments within the council because, if I just tell one, they're not allowed to tell any others. Now I can't imagine that this problem has just up and arisen today - this must always have been an issue but somehow we've been ignoring it. Now that we've got e-government, it must seem like a good time to raise the data sharing spectre. Apparently 12% of local councils (that would be about 55) are already risking legal challenge by circumventing this ruling, so Shepway have asked to be able to use a law known, pleasingly enough, as the "power of well being" that would allow them to share this data. I can think of a bunch of things that a law with that kind of name could be applied to and data sharing would be nowhere on the list, but there you are. It seems a government minister must ok such a request. What I don't follow is why we don't use technology to solve the problem and not share any data at all. As far as I read the law (and I have, several times) there ought to be a simple way around this. Suppose the website (and Shepway's is a nice site, by the by) offered the "change of address" service (I couldn't find it there today, so can't tell how they would have implemented it). You type in your old address, your new address and some identifier that makes sense to the council ... and the site then send X different messages to the council, each of which are individually addressed to different departments. The customer is oblivious to the fact that it's X different messages, whether X is 1 or 1,000 makes no odds - it's all XML schemas whizzing to the backends. This doesn't mean that all the backends need to be connected to the Internet - the messages can be routed through a hub (like our own Gateway) or even printed off in the post room and mailed using the address in the GovTalk envelope. I honestly don't see that this is an issue. The banks that are doing the "screen scraping" account aggregation would have faced the same issue, but they do all the aggregation on the client PC, so there is no point in the network when the data is shared with anyone other than the client - isn't this just the same thing. If it's a real problem, then the customer can tick a check box for each department that she wants to update and messages will only go to each of those. I suspect though that there is another underlying problem, to do with the reference number that is used to indicate who the customer is. In the central government world, we have the NINO, the UTR, the VAT number, the PAYE number and so on; the NHS has 20 numbers. I don't know how many the local world has, but I bet lots of money its not one for most councils. That would mean that there would have to be some kind of mapping service to match reference "N" to "M", "O" and "P" or whatever. That's a more interesting problem - but, again, the problem exists today. Every address in the UK has a unique number, but it's not something we make a lot of use of. So matching the addresses to the unique Post Office number might be a quick way to get around it - all you have to do then is make sure that the address change is genuine. A quick phone call, a text message maybe, an email even. Or maybe just another letter. I can't believe that this is stopping progress. The article goes on by saying councils don't know "whether to be brave or cautious". Always the former. Always, always, always. As John Dryden said, "None but the brave deserves the fair". One other thing from the same issue of the magazine caught my eye. Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council are implementing SAP (in fact and the article notes that 150 consultants are "adjusting [the] platform to fit the council's needs". That's a startling, scary idea. If it's true (and who knows) then there are two things wrong. One, 150 people doing anything isn't going to work too well, will be expensive and will not give what you need. And second, far more importantly, I can't believe it isn't cheaper and easier to adjust the business processes to match to mySAP. What are they going to do when the next version comes along and they have to retest all the changes made to make sure that they still work? What happens if there's a bug in 6 months, are the 150 consultants still there? The motto of every government IT department ought to be "configure, not customise". Unless you absolutely have to, because you are doing something that noone else has done, you should only tinker with an off the shelf app, not make wholesale changes.

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