Complex computerised systems are prone to problems. A survey for the British Computer Society found that only 130 projects out of 1,027 were delivered on time, within cost and to specification. It was against that backdrop that University of York looked at whether the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) – the framework introduced under the Every Child Matters reforms that all English and Welsh children’s services now have to use when assessing a child’s needs – would fair any better. The project was funded by the Department for Health and Welsh Assembly Government.
What did we find?
We studied two Welsh and two English local authorities that had piloted the system between 2004 and 2006. The social workers and managers in our 14 focus groups and survey praised the potential of ICS. Most saw it as an improvement that would in time lead to significant progress. They liked the increased use of computers and saw potential benefits in efficiency, security, the readability of records and management information. They accepted the need for some structured recording that treated children as individuals as well as family members. Yet despite this optimism it was also clear that ICS has serious difficulties.
First, ICS is difficult to implement. Our funding assumed that local authorities would have ICS up and running within six months of the start of our research. Two and a half years later only one authority was able to implement the full system across the whole authority, albeit with significant modifications.
Problems reported with the IT included: users having difficulties with entering data screens that flickered or were too small and crashing systems. Users maintained paper files, could not scan in letters and reports, and were unable to sign off documents or transfer data securely by electronic means.
The system did not generate accurate information for statistical comparison. Only two authorities could supply data for statistical analysis. There were 1,852 duplicate entries in 10,443 contact and initial assessment records. Most of the data demanded by the system was not provided. Variable recording practice, and differing interpretations of such key concepts as “referral” or “outcome”, made comparisons between or within authorities invalid. In a sample of 3,000 documents, three key pieces of information – the name of the social worker, the reason for referral and whether the client was aware of referral – were missing in at least a third of cases.
We found that ICS requires more recording time than previous systems. Earlier this year, the Lifting the Burden’s Task Force Review noted that local authority staff believed ICS “moves the focus of activity towards compliance with the expectations and needs of a standardised system, which appears to be chiefly related to data capture, and away from using effective professional approaches and analysis related to meeting the needs of the client family and child”.
Our study of 72 completed cases showed the average estimated time social workers spent on recording was 2.5 hours for initial assessments, 8.5 hours for core assessments, nearly four hours for care plans, and three hours for reviews. In assessments, social workers spent more time inputting data than they did on talking to the child or family.
Almost all the social workers agreed the system was not user-friendly. None of the 152 exemplars we examined in detail included direct input from a user. The parents and children interviewed knew little about ICS, the information it held on them or who had access to it.
Although the social workers welcomed the system in theory, they were critical of it in practice. They found:
● The exemplars too prescriptive, repetitive and time-consuming.
● ICS divided the information into chunks so that the child’s story was difficult to follow.
● The tick boxes were often irrelevant or too imprecise to be useful.
● The forms were too unwieldy for use with clients or case conferences and not accepted by the courts.
Interviews with practitioners working with disabled children highlighted these difficulties. They believed that the exemplars had the problems already noted in the assessment framework. The questions had a child protection bias, were inappropriate for disabled children, made faulty assumptions about their likely rate of development and failed to elicit key items of information about them.
Why do these problems arise?
The problems of implementing computerised systems increase with the ambition and time-scale of the project, the complexity and vagueness of its objectives, the number of different departments involved and failure to engage its users or understand their needs. These are certainly features of ICS but are its problems just those inherent in implementing a complex IT system? Criticisms of it were strikingly similar across authorities, irrespective of the timescales for and varying success with implementation. Experienced users liked it no more than new ones. These similarities suggest deeper difficulties.
ICS’s ambition leads to computing problems and its aim of giving detailed guidance leads to long forms. Families cannot take them in while social workers skip questions. There are costs in accuracy, missing data, time and family engagement. Its standard headings aim at a uniform approach but lack the flexibility to reflect the needs of differing groups of children. Its time limits aim at a businesslike approach, but is accurate information on identity available within five days of first contact? These are not problems of IT or implementation but with design.
Future of ICS
Our respondents saw ICS as a good idea that was too prescriptive, and needed to be simplified. They wanted fewer exemplars, questions and tick boxes, more space for “free” analysis and better exemplars for disabled children. We agree and also suggest more space for evidencing and justifying decisions and for raising issues poorly covered in the exemplars. For example, what the children’s families want.
As the Lifting the Burdens Task Force points out there are also needs for more local flexibility and more central support to deal with the technical burdens on authorities negotiating with different companies. Without this we risk IT systems that are too costly to scrap and too expensive to change.
The task force review found that “well intentioned national IT projects such as the ICS have often been poorly planned and actually create more difficulties for social workers than they solve, as well as diverting attention away from professional approaches to meeting the needs of children and families”. We believe ICS is promising and well-intentioned but has not shown it is fit for purpose. Its problems must be addressed.
➔ Margaret Bell, Ian Shaw, Ian Sinclair, Patricia Sloper, Wendy Mitchell, Jasmine Clayden are all at the University of York. They can be contacted at email@example.com