Heading for another crash?

Sharing information is key to the government’s proposals for
improving children’s services laid out in its green paper Every
Child Matters
. This is hardly surprising, given that the
Victoria Climbie Inquiry revealed a complete breakdown in
communication by the agencies that came into contact with the eight
year old.

To bridge this information gap, the green paper sets out an
ambitious plan to build information systems that will allow
professionals from different services to share notes on cases and
highlight concerns to others. Like most national initiatives, it
will have an acronym – IRT, standing for identification, referral
and tracking.

Yet the government has an atrocious record with IT projects. The
police national database is riddled with errors, thousands of
households faced eviction when housing benefit payments were
delayed and hundreds of people were stranded when the Passport
Agency’s new IT systems crashed.

Extending the minefield into child protection looks risky. To be
fair, much of the work is being done on a local rather than
national basis, but in practice councils still face a huge

The plan is for every child to have a database record, with an
identification number and links to any records of previous contact
with services. The green paper expects 13 types of service to link
to the system, including housing, police, education, primary health
care, social care and the voluntary sector.

Such systems may not store all the data held on a child, but
instead join existing systems together to flag concerns from
professionals and suggest where more data are available. But the
government has not spelled out where the money to be spent on the
technology will come from.

So far, the government has given £100,000 to each local
authority to help develop IT for information sharing, and has
funded 15 trailblazers to the tune of £1m each. Only when the
trailblazers have reported back to the government towards the end
of next year will Whitehall “examine the potential benefits and
risks of introducing IT-based information sharing systems and
whether it is feasible to overcome the considerable technical
challenges in this area”, the green paper says.

“It’s a job of enormous complexity,” says Andrew Cozens, president
of the Association for Directors of Social Services and social
services director of Leicester Council. The council is part of the
Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland IRT project which is one of
the 15 trailblazers. The system will be based on parental consent
to avoid legal difficulties over sharing information under the data
protection and human rights acts. Although in its early stages, the
information-sharing portal has been designed and work has started
on security, which could require practitioners to carry an
electronic fob for them to access computer systems.

But Cozens still sees funding as a major problem in the future: “I
think it will be difficult. I’m glad we are a trailblazer, but when
we run out of funding we will still need money to engage staff and
develop the system. It needs to be sustainable and it will require
a substantial investment.”

Peter Chester, the project’s service manager, says the main
technical difficulty lies with gaining access to databases on a
range of services. Some may be off-the-shelf software, others may
be bespoke. Some councils may find it difficult to contact the
software authors to understand how databases can be accessed.

And then there is the problem of infrastructure. The Leicester,
Leicestershire and Rutland IRT project will take advantage of an IT
network that is already being built to cover county and city
councils and the local health service. Other councils may not be so
lucky and may have to build a network from scratch or create a
secure link over the internet which would be more

As for funding, Leicestershire’s IRT project has already spent
£33,000 on building a children’s service directory to inform
professionals and parents of all the services available. The
project is on the verge of signing a contract worth about
£350,000 to build the software to connect systems from various
services. But with pilot funding running out next April, Chester
has to look at what can be delivered in future.

The government has not yet said whether it would centrally fund the
IT. If it does not, the Leicestershire partnership may have to fund
the project out of existing resources.

But some believe the onus is on councils to make information
sharing happen, whether they receive central government help or
not. Stephen Howes, a consultant with the consulting arm of Socitm,
the public sector IT managers’ association, says: “The green paper
puts the onus on the council to go out into the community to
encourage and motivate efforts for information sharing. That’s an
interesting development. There is an implied obligation to make it

Howes has examined the IT needed to support IRT in London. “We do
not see how this can operate effectively without using

He believes that councils will be expected to take advantage of
existing systems and infrastructure, such as existing social care
databases or the NHSnet network.

Although he is confident that councils will meet the deadline of
December next year to have some process in place to share child
welfare data, he is less sure of how useful it will be. Howes says:
“Local government has a good record of achieving deadlines when the
chips are down, but there is the question of the quality of data in
the system. Systems appear to meet the deadline, but data quality
is not up to scratch.”

However, others believe that becoming too hung up on the technology
is unhelpful in starting IRT schemes. Having people and processes
working in the right way is more important. A pilot scheme in
Knowsley, Merseyside, has ensured professionals are on board. Moya
Sutton, assistant director, children and families of Knowsley
Council and primary care trust, says, “We have not run out and
bought a lot of IT. Instead we have invested in winning the hearts
and minds of the multi-agency workforce.”

But Knowsley is a special case. The council has won awards for
using the latest technology for its support services. Other
councils may need additional help. Any extra funding would be
sought in the spending review for 2004, says a Department for
Education and Skills spokesperson. “The DfES is assessing progress
towards the minimum requirements and will work closely with any
authorities that need additional support to meet them.”

Meanwhile, councils will be left trying to meet the needs of the
green paper, while planning their IT expenditure for the year ahead
without knowing what help they may receive. This is one piece of
information the government is not so keen to share.

IT commitments   

  • Early lessons from trailblazing councils are expected this
    month, with more detailed information expected by late summer
  • This month the government is expected to announce how it will
    define a single identification number, most likely to be based on
    NHS or national insurance numbers. 
  • Local authorities are expected to have appointed a project
    manager or other named individual with specific responsibility for
    IRT project development and implementation. 
  • The integrated children’s system is expected to be implemented
    by the end of 2005.

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