Warnings of database flaws buried

The government was warned a year ago that a major IT system to hold case information about children involved with social services was beset by “fundamental” problems, Community Care can reveal.

The purpose of the integrated children’s system (ICS), which will be implemented in children’s departments in England and Wales, is to let social workers log records such as child protection plans.

It is made up of a number of “exemplars” (records), which track each case from referral to closure.

Unpublished evaluation

But an evaluation of ICS, which was completed last May, funded by government but as yet unpublished, concluded there were “serious reservations about the design and use of ICS in its present form and we believe the ICS has yet to demonstrate the degree to which and how it is fit for purpose”.

Researchers carried out a study between 2004 and 2006 at four councils – two in England, two in Wales – but it was never published in full. Instead, the Department for Children, Schools and Families wrote its own seven-page summary of the 200-plus page report, which it published on its website, minus the recommendations, in January this year.

The full report, seen by Community Care, urged the government to address “serious difficulties” in inter-agency communication and information sharing, in developing links with other databases and consequently of identifying early warnings of risks to children.

Frontline staff and managers felt it was hard to grasp key features of a case because the information was split into sections.

Social workers interviewed as part of the two-year study, carried out by researchers at York and Southampton universities, complained the system was time-consuming and prescriptive.

They also criticised the system as too complicated. One interviewee said it took 10 times as long to do a care plan under ICS, which meant they were being taken away from the “real social work” of interacting with children and families.

Form-driven social work

They complained that the ICS was promoting form-driven social work that could threaten the profession’s values and good practice.

Researchers concluded that the system, based on a series of tick-box forms, was not tailored to individual children, and failed to ask important questions of some children while asking ­others that were irrelevant, resulting in “bland analyses”.

The report said: “The process was felt to diminish analysis and risk assessment. There were particular concerns about risk because it was unclear where the information would be located.”

Just one of the four councils involved in the research was able to fully implement the system and those using the ICS said they had problems entering and finding data, and with crashing systems.

Another report published two months ago by the Lifting the Burdens Taskforce – set up by the government to review burdens on councils – found that council staff felt ICS had reduced the focus on meeting the needs of children and families, while increasing the emphasis on compliance with processes (www.communitycare.co.uk/107163).

It also said that resources allocated to local authorities to develop, implement and maintain information systems have not always been adequate.

ADCS concerns

Richard Stiff, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services information systems and technology committee, said: “ADCS is concerned about delays in the delivery of IT systems that support local authorities in the implementation of the ICS practice system. Effective recording and management of information is vital to being able to assess children’s needs.

“We need good systems which support practitioners in undertaking this complex and demanding work. They need to be easy to use.”


Further information

DCSF summary of research

Full information on ICS

Essential information on children’s services

Contact the author

Sally Gillen



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