Part 2: Understanding and collecting the right information

Reflecting on our work about information.

Information life cycle. 2.1
The first part of the information life cycle that a public organisation needs to consider is understanding what information it needs. To do that well, a public organisation will need to think about its goals and understand what information it needs to achieve those goals.

Public organisations that manage assets, for example, need to have the right information about those assets to effectively manage them. Public organisations that make policy recommendations or decisions need to support those decisions with relevant information about the need for the policy change and the effect it will have. And public organisations that provide services to people or business need to have relevant information about what services are needed, how they are accessed, and how effective they are.

Understanding what information a public organisation needs does not happen by accident. Identifying and evaluating information needs requires careful consideration and resourcing. Decisions might need to be made about priorities, and information needs have to be continually assessed.

Once a public organisation understands what information it needs, it then needs to collect it. How information is collected is important. Public organisations need to understand where relevant information is best collected from, whether the information is complete and reliable, and what systems and processes it needs to collect it effectively and efficiently.

People who collect information on behalf of the public organisation need to understand the significance of the information and what it will be used for. Technology can play an important role in ensuring that those who collect information have the right tools to do so effectively and efficiently.

Understand what information is needed

To identify the information a public organisation needs for its activities, the organisation must have a clear understanding of its purposes and objectives, and what information it needs to achieve those purposes and objectives.

Each public organisation will need to take account of its specific circumstances when considering its information needs. Organisations might also need to prioritise some types of information over others, depending on complexity, risk, and how critical the information is.

In our 2017 report Getting the right information to effectively manage public assets: Lessons from local authorities, we noted the need for local authorities to identify what asset information is most important. Local authorities need to identify which assets matter most based on how the services provided by those assets provide support to their communities and which assets are the most critical to ensure the continued delivery of these services to communities.

All asset-intensive agencies need up-to-date knowledge of their assets, especially the condition and performance of the assets, to make informed decisions about whether to repair or replace an asset. Public organisations might not have detailed information about all their assets, but they should have a good understanding of their critical assets. Critical assets are the assets that, if they failed, would have a significant adverse effect on essential services.

Organisations with significant service delivery functions should understand people's needs to provide the best service. In our 2017 report Using information to improve social housing services, we reported that the lack of a complete picture of a person's experiences of social housing over time affected the Ministry of Social Development's and Housing New Zealand's understanding of that person's social housing needs.

In our view, to allow the Ministry of Social Development and Housing New Zealand to understand who benefited most from social housing, they needed more complete information about who was in social housing, how long they had been in it, and their changing use of it over time.

The information gathered by a public organisation must meet the needs of those who use it. That will be determined by what the information will be used for, such as investment decisions, policy development, planning, or performance monitoring or reporting. Public organisations should take the time to consider the needs of the range of people in their organisation who use information.

Our 2017 report Getting the right information to effectively manage public assets: Lessons from local authorities highlighted the importance of considering the needs of staff who use asset information (including people in the wider business), and identifying and documenting the types of asset information needed.

Feedback from service users is also a useful source of information about how well a service is working and supporting outcomes.

Some organisations use a complaints process to get feedback. In our 2016 report Auckland Council: How it deals with complaints, we were pleased to see Auckland Council using information recorded in its complaints system to help identify the need for improvements to its services.

The executive leadership team receives a monthly report on all complaints. Each report includes information about the number of complaints received in a specific period, the topic of complaints, root causes, complaints by department, and performance against the service-level agreement.

At the same time, relying solely on a complaints system for feedback will provide only a partial picture. An organisation that proactively seeks feedback about the services it provides will learn what is working well and what it could improve.

In our 2018 report Digital access to information and services: Learning from examples, we looked at how the National Library is digitising its services. We noted that the National Library, for example, carries out surveys to understand the benefits of digitisation, particularly from a user's perspective. As the National Library learns more about how people use its collections, it will also learn more about the benefits of increasing access to digital information and how it can be more effective in tailoring services to people's needs.

How information is collected is important

Once a public organisation understands its information needs, that information has to be collected. It is important that those responsible for collecting information understand why it is being collected, what it is to be used for, and the importance of its completeness and quality. Incomplete information will affect an organisation's ability to analyse the information it has, consider trends, or draw conclusions.

Our 2017 report Getting the right information to effectively manage public assets: Lessons from local authorities noted that written requirements and direct communication to information gatherers helped them to understand their role. Strong relationships and regular communication between information gatherers and the people who used the information, including workshops, also helped.

Collecting timely and complete information can also be influenced by the expectation a public organisation sets with third parties it is collecting information from. If the organisation sends clear messages about what information is to be provided and what the process for providing the information is, it is more likely to collect timely and complete information. Although an organisation cannot control what information is given to it, it can control what it asks for and what form it asks for the information to take.

In our 2018 report How the Overseas Investment Office uses information, we noted that the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) has provided a set of publicly available template documents to assist applicants to make applications. The templates clearly outline what and how much information is to be provided with the application. This has improved the quality of the information the OIO receives and alleviates the need to make further requests for more information.

Using technology effectively can enable an efficient and easy-to-use process for collecting information. We saw local authorities using technology-based tools, including hand-held mobile devices, to gather asset information.

As technology develops, new approaches become possible. We saw an example where Tararua District Council was experimenting with drones to inspect bridges, gathering high-quality asset information more quickly and more safely than by people scaling bridges.

Ideally, technology-based tools should be integrated with an organisation's information technology (IT) system and allow staff to directly enter and access information. In our 2017 report Border security: Using information to process passengers, we noted that the New Zealand Customs Service was using mobile devices with direct access to its systems, allowing staff to process passengers more efficiently.

In contrast, our report noted that the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) was still using several legacy systems that were incompatible with the operating systems of mobile devices. This meant that frontline staff could not enter information directly and external contractors were required to collect handwritten information and enter it.

The report described that this process was inefficient, that there was a lack of quality assurance for the data entry, and that there was a lost opportunity to fully use the information gained at the ports.2

An efficient process for collecting information will also avoid collecting information the organisation already holds or collecting the same information in multiple ways. In our work on the OIO, we noted that it might consider whether knowledge from other applications could be used to inform the types of conditions it recommends be included when a consent to make an overseas investment is granted.

Similarly, in our work about local government assets, we noted the importance of obtaining the full benefit of knowledge held by staff by formally documenting it so that it is available more widely to the organisation.3

Questions to consider
Do you understand and collect the right information for your purposes and objectives?
Do you identify and prioritise that information?
Do those collecting information on your behalf understand its importance?
Do you have the necessary systems and processes to collect the information you want and need?
Are you using the most efficient means to help collect your information?
Do you consider the needs of those who will use the information and seek feedback from them?

2: Controller and Auditor-General (2017), Border security: Using information to process passengers, Wellington, paragraph 3.37. When providing comments on this report, MPI said it was developing mobile tools for quarantine officers, was working with other frontline workforces to introduce mobility, and had a four-year upgrade programme to address the risks with legacy systems.

3: Controller and Auditor-General (2017), Getting the right information to effectively manage public assets: Lessons from local authorities, Wellington, paragraph 2.17.