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Baby Peter and ICT in Children’s


Sue White
Professor of Social Work
University of Lancaster
Real Problems: Poisonous Prescriptions?
The transporting of the log is not an easy task… the natives
resort to a magical rite which makes the canoe lighter. A
piece of dry banana is put on top of the log. The owner
or builder beats the log with a bunch of dry lalang grass
and utters the following spell: “Come down defilement by
contact with excrement! Come down, rot! Come down
fungus…” and so on, invoking a number of deteriorations
to leave the log. In other words, the heaviness and
slowness due to all these magical causes are thrown out
of the log (Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific,
1932, p. 129)
Magical Thinking?
‘The index will enable practitioners
delivering services to children to identify
and contact one another easily and
quickly, so they can share relevant
information about children who need
services or about whose welfare they are
concerned’ (ECM Fact Sheet December
Magical Thinking?
The Integrated Children’s System will
provide an assessment, planning,
intervention and reviewing model for all
children in need under the Children Act
1989... bringing about optimal outcomes
for children (Department of Health, 2000).
The Horrible Truth?
The result is a system that is bureaucratically
perfect - literally, no one is to blame - and
humanly a nightmare…. As the LSE's Eileen
Munro noted: 'Haringey had a beautiful paper
trail of how they failed to protect this baby…The
ICS fails on all counts. So, yes, heads should
probably roll over the awful death of Baby P. It's
just that they are not the ones most people think
should roll. (Simon Caulkin, The Observer,
Blame bureaucrats and systems for Baby P's
fate, 23/11/08)
Human Factors
Technology does not in itself necessarily have the capacity to protect
more children, because:

1. Human mediation of technology – people are not moral dopes, and

moral or personal imperatives are sometimes at variance with
bureaucratic versions of ‘good practice’
2. Professional cultures and working practices are not easily eroded by
the demands of the technology – ‘the day job’ still needs to be done
3. The ‘technical mediation’ of human agency by the technologies
themselves, which often act in unintended ways, like simply failing to
work, or ‘locking out’ users, or recording non-existent e-children.
Human mediation of technology?
1. The Task Force Process
2. What We’ve Been Hearing

Call for Evidence – Responses to Themes

Theme 1 “We have been told that social

workers do not have enough time to
devote directly to the people they want to
help. They are overstretched by staff
shortages and tied up in bureaucracy.”

Percentage Breakdown of Scores for Q1

73.5% 3
18.9% 5
no score given

92% Agree

UNISON wishes to draw attention to the seriousness
of the problems being experienced by social work
staff with the Integrated Children’s System. The
problems appear to be fundamental, widespread
and consistent enough to call into question
whether the ICS is fit for purpose…. we have
reports of a number of industrial disputes or
collective grievances brewing … and in many
more cases staff are voting with their feet and not
using the system when they can get away with it
(Unison 2008, pp. 8-9).
What is the ICS?
• ICS is not a standard software package
• It is a standard specification, comprising a
set of data requirements, a “process
model” and a reference set of a data
collection forms, known as ‘exemplars’.
• Against this specification, suppliers are
able to develop ‘compliant’ software
Team leader: There are 50 contacts in
your inbox . . . you are under
pressure because you have to clear
them by the end of the day . . . and
the question of whether you are
more likely to close them in these
circumstances? Well yeah . . . so,
really we are looking to close cases
not open them . . . that’s why we
work to the highest thresholds.
Timescales? Well, I don't know where the
timescales have come from. I think they've
just been plucked out of - who says 5
weeks for a core assessment? And our
children with disabilities, especially when
they were complex, in and out of hospital
… so often core assessments go out of
date, you know
So there is a big difference, it is not that the
electronic system is bad, it is the way they have
designed the forms forcing you to repeat
yourself over and over again (Social Worker)

The worst is, parents can’t understand them (child

protection plans). They are broken into domains
and dimensions … Repetitive, loads of boxes. I
have to apologise to parents. We do our own old
fashioned child protection agreement in Word
and give them that to sign, so they can see what
we expect them to do (Team Manager)
It’s much worse since ICS. Like when you’ve got a
child in need and you need a conference, you
can’t get to the conference without going
through strategy discussion and ‘outcome of
section 47’ forms which populate from the
strategy discussion forms. You used to just be
able to write like half a side … but now you’ve
got these terrible forms. You have to do one on
each child, so if there are 5 children that’s 10
forms and they are nothing to do with the work…
they are just pointless and get in the way (Team
Social worker:I have certainly heard people say ‘ok give me
the youngest child’s and the oldest child’s and I will just
read them. But because largely the issues are going to
be the same and if there is anything for the individual
child on the other children in that instant then you know
tell me about it but otherwise I am only going to read two
of the reports’. And again that is quite disheartening
because again I’m compelled to write 7 conference
reports for quality assurance […] But you just think well
why are we compelled to write this way why can’t we
write one report for the family and then just have
individual sections for the children you know. I mean
everybody tears their hair out with it I think.
Option 1a)

Option 1b)
Social Worker: I have a dreadful case where
there were 6 children and 5 fathers and I
couldn’t work out who was who, so I had to go
to mum and pretend that I was really stupid...
And I said I really don’t understand it who is
this?, who is that?... And she wasn’t living with
any of the fathers but the computer had her
down as living with one.. so there was quite a
few changes with people in the wrong
addresses, like I say, a 7 and 5 year old that the
computer said were living on their own!
IA ‘front and backing’
Ubiquitous in all sites – generated by
performance demands.

Sections seen as irrelevant – can’t ‘tell the

story’ – often very little history, or
information - done on basis of very brief

System lags behind the work so ‘just get it

• Origins can be traced back to the early 1990s -
‘Looking after Children’ (LAC) project

• Well intentioned and designed to ensure local

authorities fulfilled their responsibilities as
‘corporate parents’

BUT - was it properly designed?

The format does not encourage good
communication between the worker and the
child because they are structured in such a
directive and interrogative way... The crude and
alienating numbering and lettering system lends
itself primarily to computer input and as such
encourages the worker to simply become a
collector of data. This is not surprising since they
evolved originally as research instruments for
academic researchers as opposed to tools for
social work (Calder, 2004, p. 228).
First mention of ICS…
The Assessment Framework is being integrated
with the Looking After Children materials to
produce an Integrated Children’s System. This
will provide an assessment planning intervention
and reviewing model for all children in need. The
evidence-based knowledge that has informed
the development of the Framework has been
drawn from a wide range of research studies
about the needs of children and from the
accumulated experience of policy and practice
(DH 2000)
The Core Mantra of the Devotees
The Integrated Children’s System (ICS) has been
developed in response to findings from inspections,
research and inquiries which found that within children's
social services there were failures to record, retrieve and
understand the significance of information about
children. These findings suggested the need for a more
systematic approach to work with children in need. The
ICS provides a method of practice and a business
process which aims to support practitioners and
managers in undertaking their key tasks of assessment,
planning, intervention and review (DCSF, 2008, p. 1).
Failure to Listen!
There are many substantial problems associated
with the originating LAC and AF systems that do
not appear to have been satisfactorily resolved
while constructing the ICS. Given that the
systems have been issued by the Department of
Health and they are supported by senior civil
servants and strategically placed senior
managers in social services departments and
authoritative academics, the opportunity for
critical discussion and analysis has been
limited (Calder 2004, p. 238)
Input from practitioners limited and
from service users non-existent
The main message was that the forms were too
complicated. We spend a lot of time making the forms
more user friendly. At that stage it wasn’t clear that there
was to be no negotiation, that the forms couldn’t be
changed. This caused a lot of disappointment- staff
thought they were shaping things. Every time there’s a
DCSF forum, we keep telling them that the forms aren’t
user friendly. If they said, well let’s set up a task group to
look at that, then at least we’d feel listened too. But they
don’t – they just say it can’t be changed… (Local
Authority ICS project Manager)
And the band played on…
Criticism written off as teething
problems – carry on regardless!
although the change from hand-written to
electronic recording will increase the time
spent using IT, the findings suggest that
practitioners’ resentment to (sic) the
change owes much to unresolved
problems with IT systems and the
unfamiliarity with new systems” (Cleaver
et al., 2007, p. 177)
Ignoring Commissioned Research!
well intentioned national IT projects such as the
Integrated Children's System have often been
poorly planned and actually create more
difficulties for social workers than they solve, as
well as diverting attention away from
professional approaches to meeting the needs
of children and families. We agree. ICS is
promising and well-intentioned but has not
shown it is fit for purpose. Its problems must be
addressed (Bell et al, 2008)
The Brave Few! Kensington and
[Kensington and Chelsea’s] approach differed from the
Government’s specification in the Council’s emphasis on the
family unit and an avoidance of a simple tick box approach
to assessment. These differences in the interpretation of the
ICS specification were communicated to the DfES at the
time work was started on the information system …
Throughout this time the Council has continued to engage
with the DCSF, inviting government officials to see
demonstrations [of the system]…. contributing to reviews of
the national ICS project and feeding back comments.
However over the last 2 years, the DCSF’s position has
appeared to change. Instead of promoting the aims of the
ICS, the government has increasingly emphasised the need
… to meet detailed and extensive requirements in order to
receive grant funding (2008)
The system has been extremely well
received by practitioners and many new
social work recruits from other London
boroughs have commented favourable on
KCics in comparison with those systems
used elsewhere … [which are] difficult to
use, time consuming and overly
Getting IT wrong?
• Good socio-technical systems design
requires designers to get close to the
‘end users’

• It also requires modification in

response to trying it out

• Literature on reading electronic

documents ignored, or not known?

• Escalation of commitment!!
Ripe Time for Some Proper Design!
We still have a long way to go before we can
come close to designing e-texts that
compare favourably with paper for most
routine uses. The process will be
accelerated by good design, but
conversely, it will be hampered by weak
design… The human is the key; only by
relating technologies to the needs and
capabilities of the user can worthwhile
systems be developed. (Dillon, 2004, p.
Reading times for electronic documents 30% longer,
even for simple documents – Harzell, 2002
Many IT-enabled change projects fail, despite how
much is known about ensuring success… failure
to employ best practices in IT-enabled change
stems from mistaken belief about the causes of
change - belief in IT as a magic bullet… IT is not
a magic bullet. Change in human behavior
cannot take place at a distance but requires
direct personal contact between change agents
and targets…. Successful change takes good
ideas, skill, and plain hard work — but it does
not need magic (Markus and Benjamin 1997 pp.

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