The short and disastrous history of an IT Project

Last Wednesday, Ed Balls announced that £38m was to be made available for front-line social work:

The £23m will go into a new social improvement fund to reduce pressure on front-line social workers. There will also be £15m to improve IT systems in local areas.

On the same day, the government’s chief adviser on the safety of children warned that:

Treasury demands for cuts will seriously affect social workers’ ability to protect vulnerable youngsters at a time when greater strains are being put on the service…
Sir Roger Singleton said that the Treasury had already demanded £300m from the non-schools budget for children. The “increase in demand and higher expectations of performance is not being matched by the provision of additional resources [and] the capacity of the relevant services to keep children safe will inevitably be diminished”, Singleton said.

In other words, rather than announcing the miraculous provision of ‘new’ money, it might have been fairer to say that the government would only cut the budget by £262m instead of the planned £300m.

The mention of £15m to enable local councils to scrap their ICS systems if necessary and start again caused us to consider the history of the ‘Integrated Children’s System’ (ICS). This inept fiasco has not only cost vast amounts of public money; it has also done enormous damage to child protection services.

To begin at the beginning, 2003 saw the start of ICS, when the government invited applications from local authorities to pilot the new system:

Implementation of ICS will be part of the introduction of ‘e-social care records’ in 2005. Its development also supports wider government initiatives such as the identification, referral and tracking system *(see below for explanation), which is central to the forthcoming children’s green paper, and is intended to facilitate information sharing across children’s services.

The process over the next few years was to be micro-managed and coerced from the centre, as can readily be seen from the list of publications on the DCSF site.

In 2004, the DCSF commissioned an evaluation which was delivered to them in 2006. It didn’t see the light of day until April 2008, following 18 months of Parliamentary Questions and FOI requests. The evaluation questioned whether the ICS was fit for purpose, but these objections were brushed aside. Subsequent research confirmed the initial evaluation’s assessment, but it was not until the government’s own ‘Lifting the Burdens Taskforce’ published a review of DCSF in February 2008 that the message began to sink in:

In some cases there is good evidence that new IT based approaches undermine existing effective or good practice. For example local authority staff believe that the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) moves the focus of activity towards compliance with the expectations and needs of a standardised system, which appear to be chiefly related to data capture, and away from using effective professional approaches and analysis related to meeting the needs of the client family and child.

Finally, in June 2009, the government wrote to local authorities telling them that the plan had changed, and that

“local authorities will not be required to comply with the published specifications for ICS”

It also set out:

“…the government’s continued and enhanced commitment to supporting local authorities in the implementation and improvement of their local systems, including by helping local authorities to assess the ‘usability’ of their systems and to work with suppliers to make improvements.”

Six years on, and there were still doubts about ‘usability’! As for the cost, this has been put at around £60m, although that figure refers to central government spending and doesn’t take into account the money that has come out of local council budgets. This letter from DCSF to Directors of Children’s Services in November 2006 gives some idea of the scale of the budget – and also makes it clear that more than half of it was spent during the 3 years after DCSF had received the critical evaluation report.

Last week, Robert Fitzgerald, children’s services product manager at ICS provider OLM Systems, told Community Care that the government’s centralised approach to ICS had been disastrous.

“The government thought IT was going to solve the problem, but the way they went about it, it actually became the problem,” he said. “What councils have always needed to do is determine their needs, which is down to the people and the processes they go through. Every authority does things in different ways and the prescriptive process simply hindered innovation.”

That hits the nail on the head. If you are designing a case-management system in order to make workers’ lives easier, you start by talking to them and finding out (a) how they do their job and (b) what would help them to do it better. Instead, a shedload of money has been wasted, and now a whole lot more needs to be spent on clearing up the mess. Meanwhile, to end where we started, as the BBC points out:

“there are still 5,000 vacancies in children’s social work in England waiting to be filled.”

*’Identification, Referral and Tracking’ was the name of the information-sharing project that gave birth to Contactpoint and eCAF. It was announced in August 2002, and subsequently re-branded as a ‘response’ to the Laming Report in the ‘Every Child Matters’ green paper published in November 2003.


One Response to The short and disastrous history of an IT Project

  1. Chris Mills says:

    ICS is not just a bad IT system, it is seriously misconceived, based on an idealised and mistaken view of the professional and business processes with which child protection social workers operate. The “exemplars” which form the basis of ICS records derive from the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need, but this framework was not originally intended as prescriptive and was developed solely as a guide to assessment practice.

    In true bureaucratic fashion Government has seized on these checklists and turned them into working practices which are inflexible and inappropriate. To make matters even worse, ‘work-flow’ was introduced to ICS to ensure that social workers not only worked in an inappropriate way, but worked in an inappropriate way to an unachievable schedule.

    Thus child protection social workers find themselves both doing the day job (protecting abused and neglected children) and trying to reconcile what they have done to an ICS system which is based on serious misunderstandings about the nature of their work. So ‘feeding’ ICS becomes just another meaningless chore.

    It is difficult to think how it could have been done worse.

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