By Maggie Moodie, Chair and Public Sector Lead at independent Scottish law firm Morton Fraser

WHETHER we like it or not, public sector organisations are often the gatekeepers of our most personal and sensitive information. They handle all sorts of data on a daily basis, covering everything from tax and employment to our health records.

This has become a thorny issue of late, as the public is now, more often than ever before, learning about high-profile data breaches in the media. Hearing this information understandably makes it difficult for people to think there is good reason for their data to be shared. These tensions are being brought into even greater focus with the introduction of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on Friday, and also with the recent enforcement of Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act, also known as “Digital Government.”

Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act was designed to support public organisations in the sharing of information and enable them to provide better support and services that are tailored to people’s needs, whilst also harnessing data to tackle debt and fraud recovery. As a result, many public sector organisations have started wrestling with the benefits and risks of sharing information with other organisations, particularly when it comes to the recovery of debt owed to the public purse. If data is shared correctly it can have hugely positive outcomes, but if not it can mean massive legal and reputational implications.

With growing constraints on budgets as well as money owed in debts, the importance for the public sector to share data has become increasingly important. However, we can see why this can be a daunting task for organisations when it feels like there are so many rules and regulations to follow.

The Scottish Government has made a concerted effort to do this within the Digital Economy Act. It brings in a set of guidelines which exclusively tackles the public sectors sharing of information. Whilst the act might make it a bit easier for organisations to navigate the “how” of information sharing, it is still important that the relevant departments do the necessary reading of the right codes of practice and legislation.

One thing that could make everything a bit easier is employing a collaborative approach, helping organisations not only save time and money but also ensuring everyone is following the same protocols. Earlier this month we saw an example of this type of collaboration when it was announced that Scottish local authorities have avoided costs of more than £1 million as a result of collaborative working within the Local Government Digital Partnership. More public bodies should consider this type of partnership working, by cooperating to establish a universal set of guidance will help them navigate the minefield, ensuring they are not caught out for silly mistakes.

Crucially, such “silly mistakes” need to be taken seriously – the legal implications can be severely damaging, not only to the reputation of the organisation but it could also mean everything from large civil penalties, criminal prosecution or even individuals being sued for compensation.

With all of this in mind, the question still looms: do the benefits outweigh the risks? To truly understand and answer this, it’s important to acknowledge what debt recovery means to public sector organisations. Many years have been spent trying to do this without sharing data, so imagine what could be achieved when organisations are linked-up and have access to the right information.

If public sector organisations make sure they are on top of legislation, understand the processes and ensure their teams are up to speed, it will only be then that they start to reap the benefits and help mitigate the risks.