Social workers at a North East council may be celebrating today as their IT system is eased into retirement after almost a quarter of a century in use.
Friday 1 February 2019 is Durham council’s switch-on date for the electronic case management system Liquidlogic, in use at around 80 local authority children’s services, which replaces a relational database, the Social Services Information Database (SSID). Durham has invested £3m in the switch, according to council documents.
The SSID, which used to be a common piece of council software, has been in operation at the county since 1995 – longer than some social workers have been alive. Community Care was unable to find any recent records of it still being in use elsewhere.
A version of the system was criticised back in 2004, for its primitive searchability, by the Bichard inquiry into child protection capabilities on Humberside in the wake of the murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.
An internal scrutiny review of the role of the social worker, published by Durham in late 2018, described the system as “no longer fit for purpose”, slow and user-unfriendly.
Olwyn Gunn, Durham’s cabinet member for children and young people’s services, said that workforce wellbeing was “extremely important” to the council and formed a crucial part of the review, which sought to “empower” social workers.
Poor systems add to pressures
Admin pressures have been cited as a key factor in burnout among children’s social workers, many of whom find themselves unable to spend as much time as they need to with children and families. Some councils have invested in mobile technology to enable practitioners to keep up with casework on the go.
Critical Ofsted reports also regularly highlight ineffective electronic systems as hampering social work performance management and quality assurance.
Durham’s last full inspection, a ‘requires improvement’ judgment in 2016, noted that the council relied on a hybrid of electronic and paper case management that meant early help work was hard to track and out-of-hours duty teams “may not be fully informed”.
But it added that the council was already taking action to improve the situation.
“In recent years, functionality, navigation methods and reporting tools available within commercial IT systems for children’s services have improved significantly,” said Keith Forster, children and young people’s services operational support manager at Durham council. “We recognised this in 2015 and decided to begin the process of replacing the database system we use the following year.”
Forster said that Durham had continued to update the SSID as far as possible while the new system was being put in place. The old database’s connections to other areas of the council meant the handover had to be “carefully managed and carried out in distinct phases”, he added.
‘It doesn’t help social workers find information’
Durham is not the only council spending scant resources on replacing creaking social work IT infrastructure.
At the other end of the country, Torbay recently transferred £1 million of its reserves to support IT upgrades, including its children’s services case management system, PARIS, which has been in place since 2005.
“The electronic recording system doesn’t help managers to find out easily about what the quality of services is like,” commented Ofsted as part of a 2015 ‘inadequate’ judgment. “It doesn’t help social workers to find information easily either.”
A council spokesperson said a procurement exercise was under way as part of joint arrangements with neighbouring Plymouth, which took over management of Torbay’s children’s services following a further ‘inadequate’ assessment in 2018.
“We are currently in the process of drafting a specification to help inform our requirements of a new system,” the spokesperson said.