Features: March 27th, 2009

By Robert Fitzgerald.

Because so many agencies are involved in providing services to children, sharing information is a complex issue. Within a council there may be 60 children’s databases developed over many years. The author outlines the potential of a single IT system for children’s services which integrates multiple applications from health, social care, education, youth justice and youth support.

The holistic nature surrounding the work that many agencies and support organisations within children’s services undertake means that they operate in a complex environment and must engage with a wide range of Government-led and locally defined initiatives. In particular, and increasingly so over the past few years, we have seen a growing commitment to information sharing between children’s services professionals across the key sectors of social care, education, youth offending, health, housing and so on.

The Government has invested greatly in improving information sharing and management for children’s services through its driving force; the Every Child Matters agenda. In fact never before has central government led so directly from the front as it is doing so now. Its agenda and children’s plan deliberately aim to remodel the children’s workforce, the processes it uses, its governance structure and its relationship with families and children.

A key support for this agenda comes through the implementation of major IT programmes, and the government has already heavily invested in centralised databases for ContactPoint and the national eCAF. It is now time for local authorities to focus on what they can do at a grass roots level to improve their IT support structures to maximise delivery of vitally needed frontline services.

There has clearly been considerable debate surrounding children’s services of late, and naturally this has encompassed the processes involved. The lack of efficient information sharing in health, social care and other key Government departments has been highlighted by a series of high profile child protection cases which have exposed failings across the social care system. Therefore the need to transform children’s services to prevent such tragedies from recurring has never been so prominent.

It is these individual cases such as Victoria Climbie and Baby P that have also sparked major programmes of reform in child protection and safeguarding, and in addition have contributed to an astonishing array of initiatives.

Innumerable databases

Improving information and data management is not about merely having IT systems in place; it is about using them effectively and ensuring that they can communicate as easily with each other as the practitioners of the ground. Surprisingly, it is not uncommon for local authorities to have between 40 and 60 separate children’s databases in operation at one time. Many will have been developed organically over the years with hardly a thought as to how they can interact with each other. Now, with increasing support costs and the need to ensure that these systems can support a ‘wrap-around’ service approach, local authorities are facing the need to rationalise these systems in order to generate clear improvements and enhance efficiencies.

Whilst many of these local authority databases support statutory services or have key back-office functions (e.g. school admissions and transport) and have little need to communicate with each other, frontline case management systems have a clear record keeping role and play an important part in protecting children. Most, however, have little capability to pass information between them that would make it easier to view in one place social care, health, youth offending and education data. Clearly there needs to be a balance because what should have been a major step forward for children’s services; sensibly using technology to give a rounded view of children at risk and their interaction with different agencies, is being hampered by a lack of basic integration.

Last year there were sadly over 140 child deaths in England. Whilst no IT system can ever fully guarantee that children will not fall through the net of support provision, it is clear that cross communication of important data can help in determining potential danger signs.

As anyone who works in technology knows, a ‘let’s join it all up’ philosophy does not work unless executed with considerable forethought. The current state of the Integrated Children’s System (integrated because it brings together the key social care services dealing with assessment, fostering, child protection and adoption) is a result of phased DCSF compliancy requirements which have left the country divided as to whether the electronic ICS actually helps or hinders local authorities in the protection of vulnerable children. In his recent statement on the establishment of the Social Work Taskforce Ed Balls said: “I know some people have raised concerns about how ICS works and I am determined to make sure social workers have the best system they can. Good record keeping is vital. But it is essential that social workers are able to do their jobs with the minimum of bureaucracy and they are able to achieve the right balance between maintaining their records and spending time with vulnerable families.”

Keeping good records is also significant for other areas of local government. Both frontline and back-office IT systems have an important role in capturing data needed for statutory and mandatory reporting within children’s services. In the last round of revisions to the National Indicator set it emerged that over a third of the 198 national indicators are to be derived from returns supplied by children’s services. Regarded as vital for future budget calculations, this requirement can add a considerable resource burden to local authority support teams and is a key factor in determining the ‘value’ of one database over another.

On what basis, then, can a local authority effect efficiency in its IT support, given an expected decrease in real-term spending as outlined in the recent Comprehensive Spending Review?

Future aspirations

Fundamental to the notion of integrated service delivery in children’s services is that it is supported by an IT system that reflects the ideas of close co-operation, pooled budgeting and information sharing. Put simply, an array of systems that cannot aspire to support this with cohesion will be deemed to be inefficient. Local authorities, therefore, must go through a reappraisal process and assess the true value of each of its databases; either discarding them or rationalising them.

The eventual establishment of a ‘single’ IT system for children’s services in any given authority may well be possible in the near future, but there are numerous barriers to it. Commercial considerations, protection of current assets and the complexities of the mixed economy make it unlikely that a single database with multiple applications all supplied by one vendor who has all the necessary expertise is the answer.

More realistic is a direct initiative from local authorities to motivate suppliers to work together to produce a best-of-breed system that takes advantage of all the integration technologies that currently exist. The potential of such a system is immense; it integrates multiple applications from health, social care, education, youth justice and youth support to serve the service delivery functions of the authority and appropriate information sharing. It facilitates easy access to its users via the use of mobile applications and other devices (e.g. PDAs) and connects with ContactPoint, the national eCAF and Connect for Health. Furthermore it links to corporate systems for communications, document management, finance, housing, HR and planning and can encompass CRM capabilities and service user access. Cross-service reporting is also possible for the production of all returns (statutory and mandatory) from an associated data warehouse.

Whilst this may only be a future aspiration for some, a number of forward-looking authorities are steadily moving towards it and an increasing number of tenders are clearly identifying a desire to rationalise current systems, replace less useful ones and focus on IT integration to mirror the co-operation expected of frontline staff. Whether or not we agree with the DCSF’s technological stand point of promoting ContactPoint as a key to greater information sharing, its lead is a significant driver in energising both local authorities and suppliers to work together to provide the level of integrated IT support that can really benefit the aims of the Every Child Matters agenda.

Robert Fitzgerald is children’s services project manager, with the OLM Group. OLM Group is an independent supplier of information solutions for children’s and adult services. For further information please visit www.olmgroup.com, telephone 020 8973 1100 or email info@olmgroup.com