Councils demand coherent guidance on information-sharing systems

The news that almost one-third of local authorities have failed
to meet a set of government targets on information sharing and
assessment (ISA) comes as no surprise to David Johnstone.

More than a year ago, the director of social services in Devon told
Community Care that insufficient resources, poor
communication and a lack of guidance from government was severely
hampering the drive to identify children at risk of social
exclusion early, refer them to services and monitor them through
improved information sharing between agencies (news analysis, page
16, 14 August 2003).

A multitude of information-sharing initiatives were being
introduced within a variety of different agencies, without a
thought as to how and when they might be integrated.

One year on and little has changed. “We still haven’t had the full
framework on what ISA is meant to be,” says Johnstone, who chairs
the Association of Directors of Social Services Research Group.
“Until the Department for Education and Skills offers some coherent
guidance that clarifies how ISA will operate and how it will
integrate with other data-sharing initiatives such as the common
assessment framework and the integrated children’s system, then it
is going to be virtually impossible to implement.”

ISA is the government’s response to Lord Laming’s call for better
joint working practices and data sharing between all agencies
involved in the care of vulnerable children.

The scheme requires all local authorities to follow the lead of 10
trailblazer projects which were each given £1m to explore a
number of different models for effective information-sharing
practices and systems. Each non-trailblazer was given £100,000
to help them meet two sets of minimum requirements, one by
September 2003 and the other by the end of March this year (see

However, a recent DfES-commissioned study by researchers at Royal
Holloway, University of London, found that only 69 per cent of
authorities had met their March requirements.1

Fewer than two-thirds of councils are described as “on course” with
their ISA systems, while almost one-third are “a bit behind” or
“well behind”. Only 6.8 per cent are described as “well ahead”.
Sixteen per cent still had to reach their September 2003

The study identifies a number of barriers that are hindering the
progress of ISA work. These include doubts over whether enough
funds will be made available to support the project and concerns
over the legality of sharing confidential personal information
between agencies without contravening the Data Protection Act

Many authorities said that they had found the guidance on
information sharing issued from various government departments to
be confusing and unhelpful.

“In particular the conflicting guidance on information sharing from
different government departments, for example, from the Department
of Constitutional Affairs and from the DfES, hindered progress,”
says the report.

Many of the local authorities felt that 31 March had been an
unrealistic deadline to bring together such a large number of
agencies with different professional cultures, languages,
assessment methods, priorities, business needs, computer systems
and different positions on information sharing. Some authorities
had openly refused to rush the job simply to fit in with the
government’s schedule.

“It is therefore important to realise that some authorities that
are a ‘bit behind’ in some requirements may end up with a better
product for not having rushed a quick solution,” acknowledges the

According to a spokesperson for the DfES, the government is
“pleased with the progress that the majority of local authorities
have made” and recognises that “there is a lot of guidance across
government around information sharing”. Moves are already under way
to offer more support and produce clearer, more centralised

“The Children Bill and Every Child Matters give us an
opportunity to consolidate and streamline guidance around the needs
for children. We are committed to achieving this.”

As evidence of this, the DfES cites last month’s launch of a
web-based toolkit to help address some of the more challenging
requirements of ISA. The DfES insists that feedback on this from
users has been “very positive”. “We are engaged in active
networking with authorities, and they also receive support through
mentoring workshops from trailblazer authorities.”

However, as David Johnstone points out, much of this support has
only just become available, long after the March deadline has
passed. He also finds it unrealistic to expect local authorities to
shoulder the whole burden of such a self-evidently multi-agency
initiative as ISA.

“The implementation of ISA is not a local authority issue. It
stretches right across the health service, legal system and
voluntary sector,” he says. Indeed, the University of London report
states that, of all the agencies involved in setting up ISA
systems, the health service has “consistently experienced greater
difficulties in collaborating in information sharing”.

Johnstone also finds it galling to be lectured on joint-working
procedures by a government whose different departments often seem
to be working completely independently of each other.

“We are being encouraged to improve our joined-up working, but
there is little sign of the government taking its own advice,” he

Several local authorities mentioned in the report blame poor
integration between different initiatives and a lack of guidance on
how ISA fits in with the integrated children’s system, the
framework for multiagency environments, or e-patient records as a
reason why their progress on ISA has been delayed.

It is this lack of clarity as to where ISA sits within the raft of
data sharing initiatives that Johnstone sees as the main barrier to
its eventual implementation.

“I’m very surprised that the DfES has commissioned this study at a
time when the priority must be to offer better, more coherent
guidance. I’d also be very interested in who they asked and why we
at the ADSS were unaware that it was taking place.”

Information Sharing and
Assessment: The Progress of “non-trailblazer” Local
, from

Minimum requirements on ISA by 31 March

  • Requirement 1: Have evidence of improved information sharing
    between health, education and social care, leading to better
    services for children who display one or more risk factors. 
  • Requirement 2: Have developed a common understanding of
    assessment, risk factor, service thresholds that trigger action,
    and service eligibility criteria. 
  • Requirement 3: Have a service directory providing comprehensive
    information on local providers, eligibility criteria, geographical
    location and referral procedures. 
  • Requirement 4: Have procedures for keeping this service
    directory up to date and for ensuring professionals working with
    children and young people have access – allowing public access
    where possible. 
  • Requirement 5: Publish a short privacy statement to inform
    children, young people and their families about confidentiality and
    access to records. 
  • Requirement 6: Have protocols for information sharing in place,
    covering health, education and social care; and in development for
    other agencies providing services to children and young
  • Requirement 7: Publish guidance on obtaining and documenting
    consent (including information leaflets for children, young people
    and their families and consent forms). 
  • Requirement 8: Understanding of the authority’s specific
    business needs in relation to information sharing. 
  • Requirement 9: Consideration given to system interoperability
    at local level, with agreed standards for data collection, storage,
    retrieval and transfer, based on the e-Government Interoperability

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