Features: June 17th, 2011

The Munro report on child protection presents an opportunity to re-think the ICT systems that support social workers. This article looks at the requirements that emerged from the report and explores possible solutions.

Last month, Professor Eileen Munro published her third and final report on Child Protection arrangements, The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report, A child-centred system. As anticipated, the instalment further highlighted issues faced by front-line social workers in an attempt to improve child protection services, which inevitably cast a shadow of uncertainty over the IT systems and processes in place within child protection.

On studying Munro’s report in depth, Isobel Freeman, senior consultant for OLM Group, the UK’s largest independent supplier of software solutions for children’s and adult services, quickly realised that the IT challenges outlined by Munro presented opportunities for system developers. In response, she published a special report which focuses heavily on the technical interface issues relevant to a particular set of forms. The wider purpose of the report, however, is to look in detail at the problems faced when trying to marry policy or professional requirements with available technical infrastructures.

Isobel discusses the underlying IT challenges that need to be resolved and outlines how to get the very best out of ICT systems for professional purposes based on Munro’s findings:
“Traditionally, authorities were required to implement ICS as specified by the DFES, with compliance measured on behalf of the Government by Cap Gemini. They were also required to demonstrate their compliance by evidencing their practice to Ofsted inspectors, and by reporting on a range of performance measures, many of which related to timescales. These two requirements played a significant role in influencing the ways in which ICT systems to support social work in England have been developed.

When Authorities are specifying or purchasing systems, they often put greater emphasis on the ability of a system to capture and report on timescales, than on its usability, which is something that ICT companies are becoming increasingly aware of. While a lot can be learned from frontline workers, it is difficult for them to identify the extent to which the poor end user experience is the result of. At its core this means that, for more effective solutions to be found, representatives of all those involved in the system will need to engage in end-to-end analyses, in order to balance the system appropriately and deliver usability while simultaneously supporting practice and management requirements.

ICS forms need to be deconstructed

What is quickly realised when looking at a detailed analysis of a number of the forms used in ICS and the challenges they present, is that the forms appear to have been designed as paper forms. As a result, they do not immediately lend themselves to the advantages that ICT can offer in terms of support and effective recording, in particular its ability to pre-populate forms with dates stored in a database; and to carry forward data from one form to the next. Some ICT companies found that their effort was forced into creating tick box systems that met strict specifications rather than innovative solutions that could make the social workers life easier. Others acknowledged as essential, that the size of the forms was clearly restricting the quality of practice. Munro calls for a significant slimming down of recording procedures, and consequently IT suppliers are now in a position to explore new ways to deliver enhancements to the IT systems that support them.

Creating chronological lists

Munro sees the chronology as a key component of the child’s record, and ICT can easily assist in the production of recorded items in date order. Turning this into a chronology, as Munro acknowledges, requires professional input. Functionality can be developed straightforwardly to create the initial list of chronological data items, which can be professionally edited and saved. The problem occurs when, further down the line, an updated chronology is required. If this is produced from source, the edits may well have to be redone, which would be burdensome for users. This issue presents an opportunity for IT suppliers to develop innovative solutions to meet these challenges, while simultaneously lowering the administrative requirements for the user.

A single view

ICT can undeniably support information sharing and more effective integrated working, which were at the heart of the original, now abandoned, ContactPoint system in England. Using integration functionality, for example, allows early indication of child protection concerns and the electronic sharing of assessments. Responding to this (and building on experience in Scotland), in 2008 OLM Systems made a strategic investment in the market leading data security and integration specialist, Hytec. The Single View of a Child service delivers an integrated chronology from across multiple agencies, providing a holistic view of a child to ensure better outcomes.

Family records

Whilst having an individual record for each child is acknowledged, there is an expectation that ICT systems should also allow the thread of the family narrative to be identified. The initial building block required is the system’s ability to create a family entity. Once this is created, functionality can be developed to allow case notes and assessments or reports to be recorded against this entity. ICT systems currently vary in the extent to which they meet this requirement, but most ICT advocates recognise that there is a need for children’s case files to allow recording and reporting at a family – as well as an individual level.

Locating the narrative

With simplified forms, the ability to record at a family as well as a child level and supportive chronology functionality, the family narrative will be easier to locate. When designing systems, developers need to focus more on the adequacy of the outputs for each of the audiences. If multiple outputs can be produced from one input form, then those outputs can be targeted for specific audiences. Traditional files had the running record or case notes stored in one section, while the assessments were stored in additional sections. Databases can be set up to mirror this traditional approach. Reports summarising key client information such as person details and chronology, and the current situation including details such as the last summary of supervision, are essential; information held in the database needs to be easily located.

Integrating professional requirements with available technical infrastructures will rarely be a seamless process; undoubtedly, challenges will arise. If the ICS experience has taught us anything in relation to ICT, it is that technology solutions need to make the experience of the user central to informing their design and the ability to retrieve the child narrative central to defining the content. While the report highlights inadequacies of social work systems, it also presents opportunities. It outlines how to get the very best out of ICT systems; if systems are supportive and used to provide assessment outputs, and inform supervision, data quality will improve”

Deconstructing ICS: Top five recommendations 1.

1. Limit the number of tick-box questions to helpfully focus the narrative
2. Introduce the appropriate use of pick-lists, combined with narrative recording, to reduce loss of detail
3. Drop the use of age banded exemplars so that information can easily be pulled through from form to form when a child moves up an age band
4. Using hints and hyperlinks to guidance to remind workers to cover areas the tick-box questions cover in the exemplars without requiring responses to a large number of questions
5. Producing a single child friendly plan (Similar to the Scottish Getting it Right for EVERY Child approach)

OLM Systems, part of OLM Group is an independent supplier of software solutions for children’s and adult services. Customers include 67 local authorities, as well as other social care providers.