Tuesday, 3 July 2012

IT for Child Protection

I only have to see those two little letters “I” and “T” in connection with child protection, or, for that matter, children’s services in general, and I begin to develop a nervous tick. Getting depressed and angry is usually not far away. Nine times out of ten I find that IT in the context of child protection stands for:

I …. ’m about to read something that I’m not going to like
T …. ake it away before it makes me ill

There may be some who would have me as a latter day Ned Ludd  – an ill-educated opponent of any new technology, a trasher of laptops and a smasher of iPads.

But I don’t fit the bill. Not only do I love my iPad, but thirty years ago I was an early adopter of the PC and an advocate of it as a tool of social work practice [1]. In the late 1980s I was involved in the design of case management databases. In the 1990s I managed the IT section of a small public sector organisation and developed several innovative applications. I wrote my MBA dissertation on IT in the Probation Service and I concluded the IT part of my career working to upgrade the payroll and HR systems of a large local authority.

Not to mention having been a tutor on an MBA information systems management course for nearly 10 years.

So I do know what I’m talking about when it comes to IT – more, I think, than most. But knowing something about IT is probably where all the trouble starts – I know enough to know when it’s not right, which doesn’t always please people.

Take ContactPoint - if you remember it. ContactPoint was an IT system proposed by the last Government. It was designed to track the involvement of children with ‘practitioners’. All eleven million children in England were to be on the database and 330,000 ‘practitioners’ were to have access. We were told, by Lord Laming among others, that this system was necessary to prevent another child dying like Victoria Climbié. ‘Practitioners’ we were informed had failed to share information about Victoria. What better way of ensuring this did not happen in future than using IT to force them to share information about every child? It was a whizz idea, so whizz indeed that children and young people [3], their parents and virtually every kind of civil liberties organisation condemned it as Orwellian meddling and there was a general recognition that it raised serious ethical and human rights issues [4]. The new incoming Government in 2010 took only a few months to reflect before scrapping it completely.

ContactPoint was not just a human rights disaster waiting to happen, it was a bad application of technology. The whole point about ‘information sharing’ is that it is selective and reflective. It should be done sparingly, when it is necessary, otherwise the result is information overload; what David Shenk calls a ‘data smog’ [2].

Information sharing involves a professional having something important they need to communicate to another professional. Both sender and recipient need to view the information in context and to assess its significance and importance. ContactPoint on the other hand elevated the automated exchange of data to supreme importance. Sharing was more important than understanding, and the sharing process was more important than the helping process.

Another example of a really bad application of technology was the Integrated Children’s System (ICS), developed by the Department of Health and then the Department for Education over the last 10-15 years.

Designed for use by staff in ‘children’s social care’ ICS went beyond the case management databases of the 1990s by incorporating the highly bureaucratic – and in many ways arbitrary – formats of the initial and core assessments of the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need [5]. In an effort to be child centred, it omitted ‘the family’, requiring multiple entries of common data for siblings. And just to guarantee that it was a complete disaster, ‘work flow’ was added to ensure that anyone trying to complete a record was pushed to do so within arbitrary timescales. This usually resulted in data being added whether or not it was valid, simply to stop the screen turning red and the software ‘escalating’ the record for review by management. Whatever happened to the idea of a helpful tool!! If you wanted to design bad software you couldn’t have done better. Professor Darrel Ince put it rather well when he said: “To put it bluntly, as a computer scientist I found this system had no redeeming features whatsoever ….” [6]

Look back to the mid-naughties, to the time of Every Child Matters [7]. ContactPoint and ICS were then held-up as panaceas, as the digital engines of a revolution in children’s services, as the lynch-pins of a universal child surveillance culture. Today ContactPoint has been wound-up and nobody appears to be brave enough to advocate ICS, even tentatively.

While it is good news that bad systems have been recognised as such, the not so good news is that there seems to be very little systematic or creative thinking about what happens next.

Section 4.26 of the Munro Review progress report [8] describes progress in this area as ‘slow’, pointing to ‘demands of data entry’, the fact that many local authorities are already locked-in to contracts and procurement issues as reasons for the lack of progress. I am not so sure. I think that the main reason for lack of progress is lack of a clear definition of what is required.

The report concludes: “We recommend that actions be taken to instigate an open source project to provide a successor to ICS.” And I thought: “No. No. No. Please don’t do this! You are spoiling my day!!”

The last thing we want is a ‘successor to ICS’ – another failed system. We want an alternative to ICS, some IT that delivers real value for practitioners and the children whose needs are being served. And in order to get that we need to have a critical understanding of the business and professional processes and an idea of how new IT can result in better services.

I think that there is a very urgent need to re-think the role of IT in supporting child protection, in the wake of failed and misconceived systems such as ContactPoint and ICS. Maybe the slow progress is because people want to achieve too much.

It is so easy to think in terms of a 'system'; some whopping big application with lots of bells and whistles. And it is so easy to fall into the hands of developers who will build you a 'system' and suggest every sort of elaboration you are willing to pay for. The end result is likely to be another failed government IT project. Software that doesn't work or doesn't deliver a benefit. 

I think we would do well to start off with more modest aspirations. It is highly unlikely that IT is likely to ‘transformate’ [9] a complex professional process like child protection. So much of how the process is delivered depends on what happens in peoples’ heads that the role of IT is bound to be limited.

So I am highly skeptical of projects that claim that IT can drive organisational change in social work and child protection or, even less likely still, change practice.

That sort of Business Process Re-engineering talk is generally suspect when applied to complex professional processes. BPR advocates such as Michael Hammer [10] argued in the 1990s that IT could transform simple business processes, ‘obliterating’ wasteful and costly ‘as-is’ and substituting cheap and accessible new technology. That was true of Amazon, but selling books is a very simple process compared to protecting a child. The fact that most child protection involves interpreting unstructured information and making complex decisions means that the role of IT will always be limited - and anyone who claims that IT can lead the way to better practice is probably deluding themselves (and, sadly, sometimes others too).

My view is that good support is where IT can contribute most to child protection – IT as the under-labourer, “… clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to…” better services (to misquote John Locke [11]).

Any operation (business or professional) has five performance objectives [12]. These are: Quality, Cost, Flexibility, Dependability and Speed. One approach to beginining to think about where IT will add value is to think about where it will help in achieving one or more of the five performance objectives. How can IT help achieve higher quality, lower cost, quicker and more flexible responses, and more dependable services?

Quick wins might be achieved if IT can be used to free-up more professional time by reducing or obliterating unnecessary administration … or by providing more dependable ways of storing information which can be accessed more flexibly and quickly … or by using communications to reduce the amount of time spent in meetings [13]… or better scheduling of activities to reduce wasted staff time, etc etc.

This way of thinking is likely to result in a portfolio of different systems some ‘shrink-wrapped’ and off-the-shelf. And there needs to be careful research to assess the likely impact and the costs and benefits. Some of it may be desperately dull - costly administration usually is. But the benefits could be profound - better supported professionals with more time and space to devote to direct work with families and making professional decisions.

None of this is very sexy, perhaps, but it is achievable in a steady incremental way. And I like the consequence that it results in people getting benefits now rather than waiting until some ill-conceived national project frees itself from a disastrous mess - in ten years time!!.


[1]  Mills, C “The computer as a tool of social work practice” Social Work Today, vol. 19 no. 45 July 1988
[2] David Shenk, Data Smog Harper Collins 1997
[3] Hilton Z. and Mills C. (2006) ‘I think it’s about trust’: the views of young people on information sharing. Office of the Children’s Commissioner, London.
[4] Munro, Eileen (2007) Confidentiality in a preventive child welfare system. Ethics and Social Welfare, 1 (1). pp. 41-55.
[6] Ince, D. “Computer says: ‘Misery’” Professional Social Work March 2010, pp 12-13
[8] The Munro Review of Child Protection Progress report: Moving towards a child centred system. Department for Education, May 2012
[9] Zuboff, S (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine (Basic Books) talks about the power of IT to ‘automate’, ‘informate’ and ‘transformate’.
[10] Hammer, M and Champy J. Reengineering the Corporation: A manifesto for Business Revolution, Harper Collins, New York, 1993
[11] Locke, J. 'Epistle to the Reader' in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Edited by Pauline Phemister Oxford World's Classics
Oxford, 2008
--> Nigel Slack, Stuart Chambers, Robert Johnston, Alan Betts Operations and Process Management: Principles and Practice for Strategic Impact 2nd Edition, Pearson 2009.
--> Mills, Chris “Online conferencing might be the answer”, British Medical Journal 2011;342:d1777 http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d1777