Duplication of Data Collection in the Public Sector


A new state IT leader recently told me that when he started his employment with the state, he had to complete 34 paper forms and 22 of them required his Social Security Number.  He contrasted that with his private sector job where he said that he never saw a paper form during his entire stint with that company.  I am not sure if he was exaggerating or not.  But it is the rule rather than the exception that when a new record for an individual is started within a jurisdiction, all identifying information has to be re-entered. He should have entered his SSN once and it should have been distributed to wherever it was needed.

There are certainly some exceptions to this, particularly when one has already been a recipient of a particular service and is coming to re-apply for that service.  Even ancient database applications have the ability to check to see if there has been a previous receipt through some kind of string comparison of names, like Soundex.  Hence, a new case ID number is not assigned and duplication of information does not occur.  However, when an applicant goes to a new agency, it is seldom the case that fields will be populated by data that is already known to the jurisdiction in other government offices.  This is one symptom of the silos in which all government programs operate.

Some will tell you that this is necessary for privacy purposes. In many cases, that is a valid concern.  However, the private health care sector has figured this one out.  Records are electronically transferred among health care providers with the consent of the patient.  (Another topic is whether the patient knows what he or she is consenting to when signing a consent form, but that’s not different from a credit card applicant consenting to share his or her data with banks when a credit card application is signed.)  The technical challenge has been solved in health care, not only around sharing identifiers, but also sharing actual medical diagnoses and procedures.

Obtaining consent is a challenge, but it is necessary in today’s world where it is being more widely recognized that an individual owns his/her own data, should be able to control what is done with his/her data, and should be able to opt out of certain data collection efforts even if originally automatically enrolled into them.  The National Do Not Call Registry is one example of a way to get control of your telephone number.  The private sector is way ahead of the public sector in obtaining consent from their customers so that they can provide better point-of-contact services and do the data analytics that are necessary to improve the enterprise.

The federal, state, county and municipal governments already have records of most individuals that might come to the attention of an agency.  Property, and income tax records, birth certificates, and driver’s licenses are just few of the sources of data that could be made available more broadly across various government offices to make service provision more efficient.  There is some sharing of data across offices (e.g. how do they find you for jury duty?), but these are few and far between.  There could be many more, but the key is providing enough information to people so that they know what is being shared and providing them with the option to consent or opt out of data sharing across public agencies.

Some people like to be recognized when they go to apply for a service and appreciate the convenience of not having to provide data multiple times.  Others want to maintain their privacy.  Both should be considered as government takes more advantage of the computational tools that can make our lives easier through data sharing.

Robert Goerge is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Sonia Chakrabarty

I wholeheartedly agree with this post–there are several redundancies that can and should be eliminated! What do you think it will take for agencies to embrace this idea and what do you think are some obstacles to implementation (other than the aforementioned privacy issues)?

Robert Goerge

Unfortunately, I think that it will take budget crises in state and local government to make innovations on this topic. Maintaining dozens or hundreds of registration systems is unsustainable and wasteful. Having one registration system in a state, for example, that all agencies will need to use would end a great deal of duplicate data entry. However, it will require the lawyers working with technologists to “hide” data from those who should not see it and provide data to those who should.