Councils adapt ICS to unlock its potential

The Integrated Children’s System is under fire from all quarters. But here, Phil Collins, Mike Felstead and Kevin Stenlake from Dorset Council explain how they are trying to get the best out of the ICS. And, on p22, a practitioner looks at training staff to use the system more effectively

For social workers in children’s social care it came as no surprise that Lord Laming’s report, and the subsequent media coverage, highlighted the already widespread perception that the Integrated Children’s System detracts from rather than enhances frontline social work. The message “time spent at the computer is time not spent with the child” has long resonated through children’s social care.

The ICS was intended to enable a single consistent approach to case-based information gathering, case planning, case aggregation and case reviews. As such, the easily generated and clear reports would help social workers collect, organise, analyse and retrieve information.

There is almost universal agreement that the system still has the potential to achieve all these. But first we need to deploy a system that is fit for purpose.

Overcoming challenges with the assessment framework is a good starting point. The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families provides a structured model for social work practice that takes social workers through six steps: evidence, analysis, needs, actions, planned outcomes and actual outcomes.

Information overload

The recognised benefits of following such structured processes are numerous and well-defined. However, using this framework can make it more difficult for practitioners to categorise or quantify any subtle nuances within family relationships. In some situations, the high-level view of a situation can become lost in the detail because information is spread across several children in a family. Some practitioners have also struggled to manage the essential separation between objective and subjective evidence.

The introduction of the ICS has exacerbated these difficulties. The ICS exemplars (forms on the database) provide ways to document information fragments in a way that can end up pushing them further apart. Nowhere does the ICS specify mechanisms to bring together these pieces of information for high-quality analysis. As a result, it can be difficult for the social worker to see the whole picture. The drive for prescribed information-gathering leads social workers to create assessments that fulfil a specific evidence pattern but fail to highlight the underpinning issues.

Onscreen Disadvantages

There are also physical disadvantages to the ICS. Whereas a social worker can view all aspects of an assessment simultaneously with papers spread side-by-side across their desk, the on-screen ICS exemplars have a mass of questions that lead to evidence becoming documented across many pages. With separate assessment and planning documents, it becomes impossible to view the evidence, the analysis and the plan simultaneously, constraining the social worker to a strictly serialised thought process and lots of window-swapping and screen-scrolling.

The emphasis on structured recording within ICS has also detracted from any focus on bringing case notes onto the computer in a usable manner, despite their paramount importance in managing a case.

To try to overcome some of these problems and reap the promised rewards of a well-functioning ICS system, Dorset Council identified and addressed areas ripe for improvement (see panel, right).

Despite significant additional local investment in the exemplars, a form redesign and additional software to enable information flow, a recent survey of Dorset practitioners revealed the ICS was “not yet” fit for purpose. Encouragingly,no practitioners take the view that the ICS should be withdrawn.

The survey was conducted as preparation for regional consultation events run by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. But there are concerns that these events have focused on the benefits now associated with ICS with little time spent on examining what is happening on the ground.

This has led to fears that the DCSF’s analysis will not reflect councils’views, and an opportunity could be missed for a “course correction” that could move the ICS much closer to its original goals. Failure to listen to social workers’ experiences of the ICS could mean the focus on system functionality will continue to dominate and the pre-defined benefits will never be realised.

Phil Collins is ICS project manager at Dorset Council, Mike Felstead is ICS project practitioner lead, and Kevin Stenlake is service manager, children’s services

For more on Lord Laming’s report, go to

Areas of the ICS ‘ripe for improvement’


The design of the ICS exemplars (forms) supported the opportunity for pre-population – when information on a form is automatically repeated in other relevant sections – but stopped short of offering a clear distinction between mandatory and optional questions.

The mapping of assessment questions across age bands is also an area of weakness, as is the use of cloned information within previous assessments or from siblings.

Because guidance has been inadequate, some local authorities have introduced practices where exemplar forms are approved and locked down, then subsequently opened retrospectively, creating never-envisaged complex pre-population issues.

Dorset Council believes the status and mapping of assessment questions must be defined explicitly, and mechanisms for choosing between cloned sibling information and previous assessment information provided. The re-opening of locked-down documents must be precluded.

Without this clarity from the government, Dorset Council looked for local solutions. All the provided exemplars (and a further 170 forms from within all business areas) have been reformatted and restructured in line with DCSF constraints and are now fit for purpose. Local software solutions have been developed to enable effective cloning across records, and permanent lock-down of forms is absolute.

The reformatted and restructured exemplars have been live and operating well for a year, and Dorset Council is now focusing on further improvements to ensure the holistic view of the child can be readily accessed.

The Child/Young Person’s Plan

The council’s priority for this spring is to develop a single plan for each child to identify the actions of all professionals involved.

Because a plan can be used simultaneously by several teams, there can be confusion as to who is responsible for managing it.

Dorset Council is moving away from the laborious and limiting exemplar plan and creating one with capabilities of hierarchy, filtering and sorting that will serve multiple teams and prevent teams overwriting each other’s information or needing to run additional plans on the side. The plan needs to be a key tool to manage the care of the child to achieve effective outcomes.


Following the introduction of the more versatile plan, Dorset is looking at supporting social workers in the analysis phase of the assessment process.

The multi-team involvement and complexity of many cases means that even the most capable social worker will no longer be able to recall where the most relevant information is stored in the child’s record.

Powerful tools to enable social workers to instantly find and match text phrases from disparate sources and draw evidence from the complete child’s record have long existed.

Have your say on the ICS

Better acceptance process needed

The Department for Children, Schools and Families says it has only an “influencing relationship” with suppliers. Yet, as the accrediting authority, it has tremendous power.

The focus of suppliers has been on specifying the functionality of the system – the key factors of stability, performance and usability have been omitted. As a result, the acceptance process has accredited products that appear to local authorities to be, at best, annoying and inefficient and, at worst, unstable and not fit for purpose.

Even on functional specifications, the acceptance process has accredited pre-population mechanisms that are so inefficient that users consider the product better without them.

This lax management of the products available in the ICS market has led to too many suppliers with not enough money to invest. This has resulted in no particular product becoming mature enough to be truly fit for purpose.

What is required is a more rigorous specification and acceptance process leading to fewer suppliers with better products.

More information

Introducing the Integrated Children’s System in Lewisham


This article is published in the 7 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Making ICS fit for purpose



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