On February 21, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), released a report on the state of data sharing and exchange in state and local government human services agencies and programs. The report, which is titled Human Services: Sustained and Coordinated Efforts Could Facilitate Data Sharing While Protecting Privacy, provides a review of steps the federal government and some states and localities have taken to “provide more seamless and standardized data exchange promote greater interoperability across health and human services programs.”
The research identifies promising technologies and practices that can allow for further improvements in access to critical case information for those who need it. The report finds that even with technology capable of sharing data, state and local agencies “may be stymied by uncertainties regarding what can or cannot be shared consistent with the myriad of privacy laws and requirements that affect the delivery of human services.”
To gather research and findings for the report, the GAO conducted four site visits to state and local human services agencies that were repeatedly identified during our exploratory research and interviews. The four human services organizations visited were: Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; the State of Michigan; New York City; and, the State of Utah.
The report provides a strong endorsement for the information-sharing initiatives it reviews. The authors find that the data indicate that sharing “improved eligibility verification processes in Michigan and Utah…that data sharing improved program integrity because more accurate payments were made, and staff noted program efficiencies through more automated and consolidated systems.”
The stakeholders GAO surveyed identified a number of challenges to increased data sharing related to the interpretation of federal privacy requirements. Major impediments identified in the report are “confusion or misperceptions around what state and local government agencies are allowed to share, and a tendency (within those agencies) to be risk averse and overly cautious in their interpretation of federal privacy requirements.”
Among other proposals put forth in the report, stakeholders interviewed by GAO suggested that federal agencies could clarify federal privacy requirements and consider harmonizing requirements. The report notes that “nearly all stakeholders GAO surveyed said that coordinated, multi-agency guidance that clarifies what data sharing is permissible would be extremely useful.” Further, stakeholders suggested that “developing model data sharing agreements and informed consent language that comply with federal privacy requirements, or providing existing examples, would be useful.”