How to overcome barriers to government data sharing

Understanding your data, technology and resource needs

By | 3 minute read | June 25, 2019

A woman having the worst year of her life is admitted to the emergency room. This is Elaina’s fourth admission for alcohol abuse. The costs for her medical care will surpass six figures – a bill she can’t pay.

The year could have been very different. Imagine a social worker opening a profile on Elaina during her first emergency room visit and seeing not only the police reports filed against an abusive ex-boyfriend but also her recent application for unemployment benefits and a copy of an impending eviction notice. Elaina could have left with an appointment for counseling, a referral to a job training program, and an application for housing assistance – all things that could have helped keep her out of the hospital.

Had leaders in Elaina’s community been able to see more insights from housing data and Medicaid or Medicare insurance claims, they might have found that evictions were connected to increases in hospital admissions. They could have proactively reached out to Elaina and other at-risk people about healthcare options and services that support them while searching for a new home.

But none of that happened because Elaina’s information was scattered across databases and systems. All anyone saw was Elaina’s drinking problem, not the surrounding factors.

Research has indicated that inter-agency data sharing can lead to better outcomes for people who receive government services and benefits1, yet there are several barriers that make government interoperability difficult to achieve.

Here are some of the most common barriers and a couple ways to overcome them.

  • Resource Barriers Even though a project could result in long-term savings, upgrading outdated IT systems can require significant investments in new staff with the right expertise. Leaders are also hesitant to take staff time away from other critical programs to focus on an infrastructure project.Grants provide valuable opportunities for governments to modernize systems. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality are just two agencies that offer funds for governments to complete projects that improve care and lower costs.
  • Technology Barriers Governments often maintain a patchwork collection of older IT resources with varying degrees of compatibility. Upgrading those resources can be costly, and even just transferring data from them can require a lot of time and effort.Layering newer technology on top of older, legacy systems is a way governments can start bringing data together. Security-rich cloud computing has made it easier for organizations to pull data from legacy systems into modern applications and gives them the flexibility to us as few or as many resources they need.
  • Data Barriers Government organizations collect data in different ways2. Processes for data integrity and standardization vary and are influenced by various regulatory and privacy requirements. Some groups may even have different definitions for the terms and unique identifiers they use in their data.One forward-looking solution to this problem is to create a voluntary data-sharing template that different groups can use. The Colorado Department of Healthcare Policy and Financing created a data-sharing template3 that three major agencies, including Medicaid, Human Services, and Public Health and Environment, have adopted.

There is an increasing number of technology solutions that can make barriers to interoperability easier to overcome so that governments can obtain a holistic view of people like Elaina in their communities and deliver effective interventions.

Learn more about IBM’s solutions for governments


  1. “Human Services Organizations: Partnering for Better Community Health.” Nonprofit Finance Fund.
  2. Rogan, Erika and Elizabeth Bradley, “Investing in Social Services for States’ Health: Identifying and Overcoming the Barriers.”
  3. Howells, Ryan, Cristal Gary, and Lia Winfield, “Data Challenges and Opportunities: Leveraging Data Analytics, Interoperability, and Artificial Intelligence to Improve Outcomes for State Health and Human Services.” Leavitt Partners, 2018.