Part 3: Managing information effectively

Reflecting on our work about information.

Informatio life cycle.

It is important that a public organisation is in a good position to make sensible decisions about how best to manage information it has collected.

An important part of managing information is how it is stored and accessed. Public organisations need to have the right policies, processes, and systems to find, understand, trust, and work with the information they hold when they need to.

Understanding where information is and ensuring that it can be efficiently retrieved and made available to those who need it is critical to delivering public services. Information collected and lost or that is unable to be effectively accessed is of little practical use to the public organisation. Effective information management allows an organisation to use its information productively.

If a public organisation is not managing its information well, it is poorly placed to meet its obligations when people try to exercise their rights to access official information or their personal information.

Again, technology plays an important part in how public organisations manage their information. Fit-for-purpose information management systems are essential to make sure that information is kept safe and secure, and is available to decision-makers when they need it or to members of the public when they request it.4

Public organisations need to think about how they can share information to best design policy solutions and services for people and business. At the same time, it is critical that they get their privacy and security settings right – a security failure, use of inaccurate information, or breach of an individual's privacy can have a significant detrimental effect on trust and confidence in the public sector.

Information should not be kept beyond its useful life. An organisation that disposes of non-essential information can avoid overloading its information management systems and better access relevant information when needed.

Good systems and processes are essential

To effectively manage its information, a public organisation needs well written, strong, and clear policies for document management. It also needs an information management system that stores and indexes that information, allows for easy retrieval when needed, and applies varying levels of security as required.

Without good information management systems, public organisations can waste time and resources trying to locate information when they need it. Redundant effort arises if it is easier to recreate information than to try to find it. Haphazard security and privacy settings risk document loss or inappropriate access.

Technology plays an important part in managing information well. Because much information is in electronic form, it is important that a public organisation has fit-for-purpose IT and document management systems. That is not to say that all organisations need new systems. Sometimes, old systems can be fit for purpose and handle large volumes of information efficiently.

However, sometimes requirements change, and systems need to be kept under review to ensure that they are fit for purpose. During the fieldwork for our 2017 report Border security: Using information to process passengers, Immigration New Zealand told us that it considered the system it uses to manage applications to be fit for purpose. However, it also acknowledged that the system was not designed to accommodate the changing systems requirements of border operations. Immigration New Zealand will need to continue to review whether its technology solutions are fit for purpose.

A system that is not fit for purpose can create barriers to staff doing their work efficiently. In our work about border security, we described how MPI uses several legacy systems from when it was the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Although these systems are usable, staff described them as slow and, at times, unreliable. Having multiple systems also means it takes staff a long time to find and use the right information. MPI had nine databases that intelligence staff had to search to find the information they need, which is inefficient.

Similarly, in our 2017 report Using information to improve social housing services, we explained that information that might help manage people in social housing was kept in manual spreadsheets at local offices or not formally documented. Because this data was not recorded in a single location, accessing it was difficult.

In contrast, the New Zealand Customs Service uses a system (CusMod) that sits at the core of all Customs' systems and allows staff to access all Customs' systems from one place. This system enables Customs' Passenger and Trade Targeting officers to handle large volumes of information efficiently. Although Customs has used this system for more than 20 years, it is apparently meeting the business needs of Customs' staff dealing with border security and, as such, is considered to be still fit for purpose.5 Customs told us it continues to upgrade the system to ensure that it uses modern technology and therefore extends its useful life.

In our 2012 report Realising benefits from six public sector technology projects, we outlined the benefits from Land Information New Zealand's Landonline project. Having historical and current land title data in an electronically searchable medium meant that information can be used or reported in ways not previously possible. It dramatically reduced manual processing, storing and handling paper records, and the challenge of dealing with an increasing number of transactions. It also has the ability to create new information-centred products.

Good systems enable collaboration

How systems are configured and how information is analysed affects how staff can collaborate within a public organisation and between organisations. In our 2017 report Mental health: Effectiveness of the planning to discharge people from hospital, we noted that, in some district health boards, information about patients was fragmented between different systems and the systems did not support co-ordination. In those circumstances, having a shared client file is fundamental to seamless service delivery. An integrated computer system can help share information between different parts of an organisation.

Similarly, having compatible IT systems (where appropriate) enables public organisations to share information effectively and collaborate to provide integrated services. In our 2016 report Summary of our education for Māori reports, we noted that the variety of schools' management systems did not always support schools to collect, share, and use information. Systems that could interact with one another to exchange information about, for example, transferring students, would be more effective.

Where organisations are designing policy interventions or services for people with complex needs, it is even more important that organisations share the right information. In our 2017 report Using information to improve social housing services, we noted that Housing New Zealand's staff did not always get enough detail from the Ministry of Social Development to ensure that individuals were offered houses that met their needs.

Analysing information is critical to making good use of it

As well as efficiently storing and accessing its information, an organisation needs to analyse its information to understand and learn from it. An organisation that uses information as a strategic asset knows its information is relevant and useful. It can use its information to forecast and predict future needs, build knowledge and capability, and influence decision-makers.

In our 2017 report Border security: Using information to process passengers, we described an example of information collected by the agencies involved in border security from various sources before and as a person arrives in the country. That information is analysed and assessed against established risk profiles so that threats can be intercepted and managed as early as possible. There are some limitations with the systems, tools, and resources used currently, which affects how efficiently information is collected, used, and shared between the agencies.

Having the right systems and processes to analyse information and the ability to share it within an organisation is important. Customs has well-documented procedures to feed information gathered by frontline staff back to other Customs staff. Customs officers are required to record interactions with passengers through activity reports or intelligence reports. Intelligence staff have access to all of these reports and can use them to refine, inform, and keep the risk profiles up to date.

For our 2016 report Education for Māori: Using information to improve Māori educational success, we asked schools about the analysis and reporting they did about Māori achievement. We summarised the three main features of analysis and reporting we saw in better performing schools. Those features were:

  • an active use of information by school leadership and boards of trustees – leading from the top;
  • an analysis in detail of the achievement of different groups of students (whether grouped by year, gender, ethnicity, learning needs, or level of transience); and
  • a recognition that "one size does not fit all".6

Information should be treated as a strategic asset

Public organisations that manage their information well will treat it as a strategic asset. This means that they recognise its value and that they have a deliberate strategy for how they manage and govern information.

As part of a research project looking at using data to improve public services, we saw some organisations that had information strategies in place. But we were also told that most organisations are only just beginning to think about managing their information as an asset, unlike their physical or financial assets.

There are different information management maturity models that can help organisations to benchmark their current position, target future status, and measure progress along the way. In our article Data leadership, we noted the need for system-level leadership to assist and support the public sector to better manage and use data.7

The Government Chief Data Steward and the Government Chief Digital Officer are charged with working together closely to enable better information use throughout the public sector. The Government Chief Data Steward, in particular, is responsible for providing guidance, support, and tools to assist public organisations better manage information.

The Government Chief Data Steward role was created in 2017. Although the Government Chief Digital Officer role was created earlier, both lead roles are relatively new and continue to evolve. Staff in public organisations working closely with data and information told us that it was still unclear what the roles and responsibilities of the leaders were.

The Government Chief Data Steward told us they have begun a work programme to strengthen government management of data. Some of the work under that programme includes:

  • a Data Stewardship Framework for the rules and practices that shape how data should be managed and used;
  • embedding tikanga Māori principles and priorities in the way data and information are managed;
  • building decision-makers' understanding of the strengths and limitations of data in decision-making; and
  • strengthening responsible data use throughout government and preventing harmful practices.

The Government Chief Data Steward also leads the Government's commitment to accelerating the release of open data, including New Zealand's adoption of the International Open Data Charter, and is responsible for the New Zealand Open Data Action Plan.8

We understand that the Government is currently considering the settings for these leadership roles, particularly to ensure that they have the mandate and resources needed to achieve change and drive progress. Strong and clear leadership is essential.

Questions to consider
Are your systems and processes for managing information fit for purpose?
Do you use technology to best help manage your information?
Do you regularly review your systems and consider whether requirements have changed?
Do you collaborate with other agencies who work with similar issues or data? Do your processes and systems facilitate (or hinder) that collaboration?
Do you analyse the information you have and learn from it?
Do you have a plan to enable you to manage your information as a strategic asset for your organisation?

4: Such as under the Official Information Act 1982 or the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.

5: Controller and Auditor-General (2017), Border security: Using information to process passengers, Wellington, paragraph 4.7.

6: Controller and Auditor-General (2016), Education for Māori: Using information to improve Māori educational success, Wellington, paragraphs 4.22 and 4.23.

7: This was one of four Data in the public sector articles that we published in 2018.

8: For more about the New Zealand Open Data Action Plan, see