Regular readers will probably remember the ongoing saga of the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) evaluation. ICS is the new electronic system intended to hold social work records. Each local authority is expected to introduce it, but the process has been fraught with delays and difficulties.
In 2004 the government commissioned an evaluation of ICS from academics at York University. Over the next two years the academic team studied four local authorities as they attempted to get ICS up and running. Their report was submitted in September 2006 – and promptly disappeared. In the following 18 months, shadow children’s minister Tim Loughton twice asked when it would be published.
Finally, two months ago, the government published its own document which they said was based on the evaluation report. We are told that they did not consult the report’s authors before producing this (though we’re happy to be corrected if we’re wrong).
The government’s version said that the report identified these problems:
The unanticipated scale of organisational change which the implementation of a complex system such as ICS brought about.
The need for improvements in social work training to ensure that qualified workers are knowledgeable about the research and conceptual base of the ICS, and are enabled to develop their analytical skills.
The need for greater support for social workers to use the system appropriately with disabled children
It also included the now-familiar response to reports that don’t say the right sort of thing:
There was coherence to the data from the different data sources… However, the research does not provide a sound basis on which to judge the potential value of the ICS
We FOI’d a copy of the original report, but had great difficulty in reconciling it with the government’s summary. While the report’s authors generally believe that a move to electronic records could be a positive one, they say:
However, our evaluation raises serious reservations about the design and use of ICS in its present form and we believe that the ICS has yet to demonstrate the degree to which and how it is fit for purpose.
While optimism about the system’s potential prevailed over time and some early sources of negativity were resolved, other negative attitudes crystallized and hardened. Social workers with longer experience of ICS were not more positive towards it than those who had relatively recent contact with it.
The concerns expressed included (a) the increased time demands which were “associated with ‘paperwork’ rather than any significant shift in orientation to social work“:
The time required for assessment, planning and review is very considerable and could easily come to absorb the great bulk of social work time. The demands of ‘data entry’ are also considerable and, in ordinary initial and core assessments, take up slightly more time than direct contact with the family or child.
(b) The prescriptive nature of the system:
The ICS was seen by the majority of members of the focus groups in the process and audit studies as being too prescriptive, too long, and repetitive and divided unhelpfully into chunks. There was concern that since the exemplars insisted on similarity, they failed to ask questions that were relevant to some children while asking of others questions that were irrelevant. Practitioners were also concerned that the records were not suitable for use with children and families, and that some, such as the core exemplar, were inappropriate for use with children with disabilities.
(c) The inflexible and standardised format which made it “difficult to grasp the key features of a case or to track its coherence“. While the authors say that the assessment framework encourages social workers to think systematically about a case,
The difficulty arises because problems do not come divided up in the way in which the exemplars are structured. Linked to this, the system cannot easily encompass the logic of analyzing a case. Essentially it adopts an actuarial approach by asking for information which, in a large sample of cases, predicts negative or positive outcomes. This is a sensible approach for management purposes, but an individual case requires a more individual and flexible approach
Far from the problem being one of social workers’ failure to understand the system, as the government’s version of events suggests, or their underdeveloped ‘analytical skills’, it is pretty clear that the fly in the ointment is the system itself. A shame, then, that the government didn’t find out more about the ‘conceptual base’ of social work to begin with, and a disgrace that they prefer to suppress criticism rather than deal with the problems.