Touching database

Fancy an acronym, guv? The world of information and communication technology (ICT, sorry) is a breeding ground for them. For example, IRT (identification, referral and tracking) projects, ICS (integrated children’s system) and ICRS (integrated care record system) are all aimed at improving information sharing.

Faced with this, it is small wonder that dazed and confused social care workers, not universally renowned as technophiles, prefer only one acronym (SOS) and see a raw beauty in the unplugged. But, if they are to be onside with the green paper Every Child Matters, they need to be online.

Failing to collect and share basic information can result in an irritating administrative inconvenience or have the tragic consequence that befell eight-year-old Victoria Climbi’. In theory, collecting, and sharing information is a simple thing. Practice, though, has begged to differ.

Organisations have in the past bought into systems that promise to adapt to local need. Sheffield decided to build from scratch and to a specification guided by the people who would use it.

“ICT is a tool to aid professional practice – and will only work if practitioners use it. We want them to want to use it,” says project manager Claire Bullement.

Sheffield consulted 800 practitioners on how best to set up Shirt (Sheffield identification, referral and tracking). “Now there’s a secure online referral system where you can check a referral’s progress,” she says. “We’ve also got a service directory, part of which details the referral criteria for the different agencies, thus reducing the number of misplaced referrals.”

The information shared is basic – name, address, gender, date of birth, names of agencies and practitioners the child is involved with. “We have limited data available on the child, but much more about practitioners involved – because that’s what people asked for,” says Bullement. This has also helped to clear the muddy waters around confidentiality, data protection and human rights.

And because the users (staff) have been listened to, they have slipped neatly into Shirt’s pocket. Bullement says: “Information-sharing agreements are important at a strategic level but as far as professional practice is concerned, it’s the process that counts. Agreements and protocols can be long, so we are developing a checklist so that people know whether to share information at any given time.”

The sheer size of Sheffield, with its population of 513,000, presents its own difficulties. But size does not necessarily matter, as they have found at Bracknell Forest (population 110,000) in Berkshire. Vincent Badu, assistant director of strategy, commissioning and resources, says: “Being a small unitary authority gives us advantages when sharing information. Our difficulties are similar to everyone else: legal issues about sharing information, IT systems that do not easily talk to each other, and adequate resources to back up the systems.”

Bullement says the success of Sheffield’s system has been rooted in making it practical and being honest about what it can do. “One of the first things is to be clear from the outset what IRT will deliver,” she says. “People think it will do everything and will solve all their multi-agency issues. It is a supporting tool.” A-OK.

Learning power

Lessons from Sheffield

  • Be clear from the start about what your system can deliver – it cannot be the answer to all your problems.
  • Consult those who will be using it – what do they want? Be user-led.
  • Keep things simple and draw up brief, bullet-pointed guidance.
  • Try to ensure that all staff have at least access to ICT equipment.
  • Although agencies will have different systems, there will be areas of commonality and processes will be similar. Build on those.   

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