By Laura E. Furr.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Wong, President of AJW Inc., a national expert on data sharing and data management across local government agencies and service providers. In our conversation, he shared lessons learned from recent data and information sharing efforts and explained how city leaders can improve policy and outcomes for residents through successful data and information sharing by taking three key steps:

  • Engage legal counsel early in the process,
  • Build community buy-in for data sharing, and
  • Embrace the role of champion.

Our recent guide, Sharing Data for Better Results, includes legal counsel as key stakeholders at the beginning of an information and data sharing initiative. How have agencies successfully worked with legal counsel?

AW: In Albany, N.Y., agency leaders from the local school district, city police, county mental health, county child welfare services and county probation were all interested in creating an information sharing agreement to prevent youth violence. As soon as this level of departmental interest was clear, we engaged with their legal counsel. We presented why we wanted to share data, how data would flow and how client-informed consent forms would explain to families that all private information would be protected. The clarity and specificity of purpose and protocol allowed us to speed up the development of documentation, both with project leadership and legal counsel.

A common concern about information and data sharing is community buy-in, especially when the records of children and youth are concerned. How can leaders successfully build buy-in and address community concerns about potential privacy violations?

In two projects, in Richmond and Antioch, Calif., we are working to build community buy-in for a shared data system to benefit families and the community. This system would allow schools, police and child welfare agencies to share data on incidences involving youth, but information on services the youth’s family receives would also be shared. The intent is for these agencies to use this information to identify how services provided to the young person and his or her family could be improved.

A community engagement specialist began engaging the community early on in the process to facilitate a process to address conflicts and share the purpose of the work. In particular, the consultant highlighted the intersection of community interests and the benefits of the shared data system to young people and their families. The decision to engage the community at the beginning of the process – even before agreements between the city and county departments were signed – made the difference.

We’ve discussed the role of legal counsel and the community. What is the role of local agency leaders in creating a successful data sharing agreement to benefit communities?

Government and agency leaders can best support data sharing by taking ownership of a project and acting as its champion. In San Francisco, we are working with mental health, child welfare, probation and school districts to develop an early intervention system for children who have poor school, safety and mental health indicators.

The project has been developing for over a decade and we have seen leadership changes during that period. When mental health or human services leaders took ownership and drove the project, the initiative moved forward successfully. In between these periods, the project faltered. There were also times where the legal conversation got bogged down. A second lesson came about when the purpose and flow of information was made clear to the district attorney and the head of probation, who were then able to help break the logjam. They even played a role in convincing other departments of the potential benefits of identifying potential at-risk youth at an early age. The need for buy-in from agency leads is a key lesson that has resonated in all of my work since then.

In your experience, what type of policy decisions are improved through shared data?

In Antioch, Calif., education and law enforcement agencies were able to use a shared data system paired with a protocol on collaboration to divert youth from more severe disciplinary or incarceration options toward family support services. In California, county probation agencies are gearing up to work with state legislators to create better informed policies on when and how data should be shared. Most interestingly, we are now seeing agencies reviewing how policies focused on collaboration between partners that share data can also focus on shared outcomes.

Beyond the ability to make policy decisions based on shared data, what results can cities expect from a well-crafted data sharing structure?

Over the course of a five-year initiative in San Francisco, new thinking and new ways of collaboration between departments are emerging. These include focusing multiple departments on shared outcomes, such as increasing school attendance, engagement and performance. We have also seen cities achieve cost savings by identifying high-cost clients who receive services from multiple departments and taking steps to serve them more efficiently or effectively.

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Originally posted at Cities Speak.