One Government – Data-Wise

My brother has worked for a large number of insurance companies either on the accounting or in sales.  He’s been at the bottom of the totem pole and VP in charge of something or other.  (I think it was commercial insurance for western Canada.)  One of the things that he wanted to do more often, but which he was discouraged from doing, was sending cases to their private investigator and then to court.  It always came down to money:  how much was it going to cost to hire a private investigator, how much were the lawyers going to charge to fight it in court, how much would it cost for internal staff to evaluate the information and determine if criminal charges could/should be brought and a litany of other factors.

His boss always asked him “Are we going to save money by pursuing this or is it cheaper to just pay?“.  So, yeah, if it was going to be cheaper to pay up than fight the insurance company would pay up.  Now, there were instances where standing up did occur and that was usually due to repeated trips to the money trough.  It stopped becoming a matter of money and became a matter of pride.  “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”  The insurance companies essentially institutionalize fraud.

The government, however, is less likely to back down.  The government is more likely to stand up and say “No, not on my watch.”.  When I worked for the WCB thirty years ago they spent a lot of money on private investigators and lawyers.  It was probably close to the same amount of money that they saved, but they prevented future problems by putting up a defense and saying “No”.  If they hadn’t they would have been inundated with fraudulent claims.

We want to stop the fraud and yet we put in place walls to prevent us from doing exactly that.  Data sharing between ministries, data sharing within a ministry, is both encouraged and discouraged.  Encouraged because it is the right thing to do, but discouraged because of FOIPP.  But what if you need to detect fraud across the government as a whole? What if someone was trying to get income assistance without declaring the student loan that they just got?  Wouldn’t it be great if the different ministries could talk to each other and confirm the truth?

But we’re scared.  FOIPP scares us.  We look at FOIPP and we are scared to give people outside of our sphere of influence access to the data but we’re more than willing to bring down someone’s personal information onto our own desktop to play around with.  And if we want to share data with someone else in the government there is an extensive data sharing agreement that needs to be established.  There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of data sharing agreements in place.

What if instead of each Ministry being considered a separate legal entity we considered it part of the GoA, part of the same legal entity for the purposes of FOIPP?  (Considering how often we swap around bits and pieces over the course of time any single branch could be in almost any Ministry.)  What if, instead of trying to lock down all of the data, we looked at ways of opening up as much of the data as we can?

For instance, what if Advanced Education created a service (wow, I had to get that in there didn’t I?) that applications from other Ministries could call that would identify whether or not a specific person had received a student loan?  Not the amount, just whether or not they had received one.  The people doing income assistance could check and see if someone was getting a loan that they forgot to mention and if they found one then they could start asking the right questions.  What if Justice created service that Advanced Education could call to make sure that someone supposedly registered as a full-time student wasn’t actually spending all of their days behind bars?

Imagine the solutions that we could build if we were, in reality, “One Government”.

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