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New law sets out directions for data sharing among Singapore Government agencies

On January 8, the Public Sector (Governance) Bill (“the Bill”) was passed in the Singapore Parliament, setting out directions for data sharing among government agencies.

The Bill was first read on November 6, 2017. It aims to set out a consistent governance framework across the public bodies in Singapore and to support a whole‑of‑government approach to the delivery of services in the Singapore public sector. Division 2 of the Bill focuses on data sharing directions and prescribes safeguards against abuses.

Directions may be made for data sharing by a relevant minister (as described in Division 1) for all or any of the following purposes: 1) to uphold and promote the values of the Singapore public sector; 2) to secure economies or efficiencies for the Singapore public sector; 3) to improve (directly or indirectly) the efficiency or effectiveness of policies, programme management or service planning and delivery by Singapore public sector agencies (whether by carrying out data analytics work or otherwise); 4) to ensure business continuity; 5) to ensure accountable and prudent stewardship of Singapore public sector finances and resources; 6) to manage risks to the financial position of the Government; and 7) to support a whole-of-government approach in the discharge of the Singapore public sector agencies’ functions.

According the Bill, when a data sharing direction is given, Singapore public sector agencies and their officers are authorised to share the information under the agency’s control with another Singapore public sector agency to the extent permitted by the data sharing direction despite any obligation as to confidentiality under the common law. However, this does not override any obligation as to confidentiality because of legal privilege or contract.

Unauthorised disclosure and improper use of information ( the disclosure or access is not in accordance with any data sharing direction, and the individual does so either knowing that the disclosure or access is not in accordance with that direction or reckless as to whether the disclosure or access is or is not in accordance with that direction) carries penalty for the guilty individual in the form of a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to both.

The resignation from the Singapore public sector agency by the individual is immaterial. Criminal proceedings may still be instituted even after he/she leaves the service of the Singapore public sector agency.

The same penalty is applicable to unauthorised re-identification of anonymised information.

Clauses 46 in the Bill onwards make an amendment to a standard secrecy provision in several Acts of public bodies which today prohibit disclosure by employees of public bodies of information controlled by the public body. The amendment provides for disclosure where allowed by law (which includes the Bill).

This amendment read together with clause 6 (which deals with the effect of a direction) clarifies that the standard secrecy provision does not prohibit data sharing between Singapore public sector agencies, where that is permitted by the data sharing direction given to them.

Clause 107 amends section 3(2)(b) of the Statutory Bodies and Government Companies (Protection of Secrecy) Act (Cap. 319) to further facilitate the expeditious sharing of data between Singapore public sector agencies.

A truly whole-of-government approach and enhanced data sharing among government agencies could potentially lead to significant improvement in the design and delivery of government services. For instance, the delivery of government services structured around key moments of life, which is one of the strategic smart nation projects, would necessitate easier data sharing between agencies. (It means that citizens do not have to approach different government agencies to get services they might need at moments like going for higher education or getting married or having a child. The agencies will come together to deliver whatever the citizen requires.)

However,concerns were raised in the Parliament regarding security and data privacy, as reported by Channel News Asia and Today. Minister in charge of public service innovation, Ong Ye Kung, who is also the Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), sought to address the concerns saying that public servants can only access data based on security clearance, and there has to legitimate purpose or need. Data will be classified by sensitivity levels and appropriate guidelines applied for collection, transfer and handling of data. Anonymised data will be used in areas where it would serve the purpose and individuals’ details are not required.

Access the complete text of the Bill here.

Featured image: Yoshimasa Niwa from TokyoJapan/ CC-BY-2.0

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