“Putting children at the heart of what we do”. Patchwork gets going in Brighton.

This month has seen the launch of the Patchwork project in Brighton – and it’s been a busy and exciting few weeks.

The project kicked off with a packed launch event at the start of the month. My carefully laid out table plans were happily discarded once it became clear that we had to find seats for the extra 25 people that had turned out to hear what Patchwork was all about (a problem we were happy to have!).

Introducing the event Brighton and Hove City Council Chief Executive, John Barradell was explicit that it should be about ‘putting families, putting service user, putting children at the heart of what we do’. In helping to coordinate and connect the team around a child or family, Patchwork will work to support practitioners to do exactly that.

The Brighton Programme Lead for Patchwork, Paul Brewer, explained that front-line staff regularly feed back on the challenges they face in connecting and sharing information with other practitioners. This project, he stressed, is aimed at looking at solutions. He described Patchwork as a “very simple lightweight web technology that allows people to know who’s involved with the child, and to make those connections that are so important to the delivery of services”.

Carrie then shared the Patchwork story to date. This was met with a host of questions about what the application can do and what more it may be able to do in the future. Feedback was incredibly positive and it was clear that there is a strong appetite for a solution to the perennial challenges of multi-agency working. Almost everyone who came along was keen to stay involved, providing their expertise to make sure it’s a success.

We were also given food for thought about the next steps for the project. Overwhelmingly the majority of questions were concerned with issues of consent, sharing of sensitive information and security of technology. Yet, there was also recognition that for it to work, it would be ideal for practitioners from all agencies working with children, to have access to the Patchwork app. As Carrie discussed recently, it’s going to be crucial to work through these issues.

We also heard about problems with existing technology for Children’s Services, and the need to remove complex and inflexible technology-led administrative practices. And, of course, there were a lot of views about what else people would like the app to do:

“It would be really important to be able to see the links between children and family members so that you can see the network that exist around the whole family”

“Are you able to see the historic data, about practitioners that were previously involved but no longer involved?”

“Does it have a service that allows you to message other people?”

‘It would be very useful if the tool could be used to email all professionals involved to meetings”

“Do you get automatic reminders to tell you that you are still listed as involved with a child?”

It is this input from practitioners that will continue to drive the way Patchwork is developed. Front-line staff involved in testing the tool in Brighton will share their views, not just on functionality, but on usability, to develop the right tool for Brighton. The task for the Patchwork team is to translate these views into useful functionality for the app.

Since the event we’ve been building on the momentum by talking and listening to individuals and teams, generating awareness of the project across the local authority and partner organisations. This has ranged from pastoral staff in schools, to domestic violence case workers in the police, to legal staff in the local authority. We’ve been hearing a lot about the day-to-day reality of stitching together all the people and organisations that support children and families.

Two things in particular have struck me from all these conversations. Firstly, I have been inspired by the passion people have for the job they do and the commitment to overcome these challenges. There is a real willingness to work together to give families coordinated support; they just need the right tools to help them do this. Secondly, there is a very determined focus to put children and families at the heart of any solution. We couldn’t agree more and are going to try and speak to children and families to find out what they think about the project.

The next month promises to be just as busy. We’ll keeping up the conversations, as well as following through on the issues that have been raised so far, including information governance. We also planning a follow-up workshop for front-line staff so that they can get their hands on the Patchwork app and find out how they can get involved in trialling it in the New Year!

If you have any comments, suggestions or would just like to find out more then please get in touch with me at kiran [at] wearefuturegov [dot] com

‘I’d rather go to jail for sharing too much information than not enough’

Image: Paolo Marconi

Talking to a room full of child protection practitioners at the launch of our work with Brighton and Hove City Council recently, I outlined the story of Patchwork to date.  The response was great – I couldn’t have hoped for more enthusiasm and participation from everyone there.  We had a full house and even a potential fire hazard at one point, until we made more space for the nearly 90 practitioners that turned up.

It was a proud moment sharing our journey with Patchwork so far and it’s clear that designing the app with practitioners instead of at them has led to a product that meets their needs.  No one questioned the point of Patchwork – all the questions were asking what it does and what more it could do (answer: plenty!).

As you can imagine, a lot of the questions were about information security.  Is it open to just anyone?  How do you stop people randomly searching for others?  And of course people wanted to know if they could upload their case notes and use it as a multi-agency messaging system.  This is where my heart sinks a bit.  Technically can we do that stuff?  Of course!  In reality will we be able to do that stuff?  Right now it seems a couple of years off.

The problem is Information Governance.  I don’t have the background to go into the detail of it, but our work on Patchwork has introduced us to a moral maze (or is that a legal labyrinth?) of Information Governance issues.  The law (or is it policy? or guidance?) is confusing to say the least, but more confusing is the way that the public sector’s policies seem set up to prevent good working links between different agencies – health, police, local councils, voluntary sector, housing associations, private companies, fire service and even individuals like parents and carers.

This post is not a rant about how bad the policies are, or how the law should be changed.  It’s a call to local authorities and other public sector agencies to invest in their Information Governance teams.  Investing in anything right now is a tall ask but if there’s anything that can save money in the medium to long term it’s having an all-star, red-hot Information Governance team.

I know what it’s like – you see ‘Information Governance’ on a budget line and think ‘That’s got ‘cut’ written all over it’.  After all, who really knows what those guys do?  Didn’t we just invest in Sharepoint?  Wasn’t that supposed to solve all these problems and mean that information is flowing round the organisation like a well oiled machine? (How’s that working out for you by the way?).

Here’s what a top-notch Information Governance team should be doing:  working out how local authorities can share information with other agencies (and vice versa) without compromising people’s privacy and security; thinking about how to work with cloud computing and the security and information implications of having data hosted outside of the council; helping staff in services understand how to use the web safely; helping you figure out how you can stop investing in big expensive systems and start running lightweight web-based apps.  I’d like to see more suggestions in the comments…

Most local authority Information Governance teams are only a couple of people strong if you’re lucky, and those we’ve encountered in the NHS seem to be about the same.  They’re overworked, under-resourced and operating in a world that is rapidly dying.  No wonder their default position is to say ‘no’ and to operate an approvals-based system that leaves you guessing at what might satisfy their standards.  They don’t have time to work together to find solutions and ways to break through the barriers, they only have time to highlight risk.  Furthermore they work in a field that is tabloid heaven.  If something goes wrong it’s their responsibility (legally) and their name in the Daily Mail.  The fear of blame is endemic in the public sector and leads to restrictive practice all over the place.  But that’s another post for another day.

The point is that it’s easy to blame Information Governance teams for not being progressive enough or for constantly blocking innovation.  But good information governance is essential to keep services running in a web-enabled world, and it’s the last thing that should be running on a shoestring.  It’s time to invest in professionals who know their stuff, have in-depth knowledge of web technology and security, and have time to support the organisation in how they use technology and use it right, not whether to use it at all.

If this post had any influence at all we’d see 400 councils rushing out to recruit their own Information Governance teams.  But in reality a district probably doesn’t need its own team, and in many ways even a county doesn’t.  It would be way more interesting to see local authorities and other public agencies investing together in a shared Information Governance resource, perhaps at county or city level.  They could afford more and better advice and the advice would be applicable to a region rather than a fragmented agency-by-agency basis.  That would put organisations on an equal footing and create the conditions for multi-agency working to be successful.

Meanwhile, back at PatchworkHQ we’ll be spending the next 6 months trying to work through the information governance issues associated with letting practitioners from different agencies just see who else is working with their cases.  The title of this post is a quote from a social worker who refuses to let the absurdity of current Information Governance rules dictate her practice, and we’re fortunate to work with many others who feel the same.

Onwards!

Evaluating impact in Lichfield and Staffordshire

get connected

Image: Derek Baird

Following our recent announcement of our on-going partnership with Staffordshire County Council and long-time supporters of Patchwork at Lichfield, we’ve been working hard with the councils and partner agencies to build on the work already done to develop and test Patchwork with practitioners.

Earlier in the year we had a bunch of users in Lichfield signed up to both help us design, but then also trial the tool as part of a proof of concept – to test the functionality and see whether there’s benefits in using Patchwork longer term. We wanted to both see whether the technology worked, but also to find out whether practitioners found it useable and useful in their work.

We’ve spent the last few months working to get a longer pilot in place with strong evaluation behind it as an opportunity to really test the tool in live operation. So we’ve been working with Lichfield and our partners across Staffordshire to get this up and running so that we can measure the success of Patchwork with more cases. During this period, we’ll be asking the users some questions around how easy they find it to contact the right people in partner agencies when working with complex cases – both before and after the introduction of Patchwork. The aim is to quantifiably illustrate the value we believe the app brings given our experience so far and the anecdotal stories we now want to more rigorously capture.

This is now happening, with users from multiple agencies currently being given access to the application to play around with. Throughout the pilot, and in particular at the end of this next period of testing in 3 months, we’ll be talking to them about what they liked and didn’t like, and using this to develop the prototype into a full blown product.

As if this weren’t keeping us busy, we’re working across the county to design a roll-out of Patchwork to the other districts and boroughs, working with partners in the Fire & Rescue Service, the NHS, Staffordshire Police and a range of other organisations including the community sector, to try to extend the benefits of Patchwork across the county for the long term.

With the Patchwork team nearly complete (for now at least!) and the second site now up and running down in Brighton, it’s full steam ahead!

If you’re interested in hearing more, you can follow our tweets, or sign up for the blog updates here or the Patchwork newsletter. Also, if you would like to talk about bringing Patchwork to your council, do get in touch.

Working Together Better through technology: Brighton take the Patchwork approach to supporting families

Anyone who has spent any time working in local government, and particularly safeguarding children, will be all too aware of the challenges faced by professionals in trying to stitch together cumbersome local public services to solve complex social problems. Umpteen different organisations each one with their own priorities, unique cultures and sets of rules and regulations. None able to solve these challenges on their own, all equally burdened by the weight of policy, structure and bureaucracy that often (mostly) prevents them from operating in the most effective and efficient way possible.

Our background in local government combined with a geeky enthusiasm for the power of the web, made us think that, in a world of real time communications, web technology could be used to improve information sharing and create the space for human relationships – offline as well as online.

Brighton

Photo: Suburning

Over the course of two years, having been encouraged and guided by a diverse and generous group of experts who responded to our call for help, we set about testing our theory that design and digital technology might provide a route to solving the communications challenges faced by practitioners and their clients.

With the support of early partners NESTA (who continue to be loyal supporters of the project) and after some very enlightening insight in Westminster, we have spent the last year researching, designing, developing, prototyping, testing and implementing our technology supported approach to service change in child protection with our partners Lichfield District Council.

While based in Lichfield, the project was also supported by Staffordshire County Council and others like South Staffs.  They have shown their continued commitment by recently investing in the project along with NESTA and the Nominet Trust.

In Lichfield we have spent time working closely with practitioners, ensuring that we understood their needs. Through this process, we have been able to start small, building a prototype web app and approach to change that supports the most pressing needs of those people looking to support families in Lichfield and beyond.

Patchwork provides an opportunity to better connect professionals (and soon their clients), surfacing the often large and opaque network of professional support around a family and ensuring those professionals have a means by which to find one another and connect. By better joining up the dots, Patchwork improves information sharing within and between agencies by supporting better human relationships. The implementation of this web app is supported by a change team working hand in hand with councils to map out current practices and move towards more joined up ways of working.

Today we are kicking off the next stage of the Patchwork project with our new partners Brighton and Hove City Council. Very much in the spirit of the open approach to both technology and service change, again we will be working closely with Brighton to understand the needs of practitioners and their clients and build on top of the current app to best meet their needs.

This is the beauty of an open approach to web development and service change. Where once technology was fixed and change pre-packaged, we are now able to listen, learn and iterate to make sure that the approach is right and the impact on service outcomes greatest, as people feel they have a stake in the technology and an interest in helping to make it a success.

This morning Brighton & Hove Chief Executive John Barradell will address a 70 person multi-agency gathering to launch the Working Better Together Patchwork project, asking staff for their support in designing and delivering next generation children’s services.

Programme Manager Paul Brewer is up for the challenge. “The interviews we did with practitioners in the lead-up to this project made it very clear that many things get in the way of working together effectively with families. It’s difficult to know who’s involved and build the network up.  It’s even harder to maintain good quality multi-agency networks and ensure well co-ordinated support and intervention.

We believe our front line staff are best placed to design new and effective ways to work together, which will be supported by the Patchwork tool we will help shape.  We will design, build and test the tool together with FutureGov and will place an emphasis in the project on assessing benefits to front line practice and outcomes for children.  We believe FutureGov’s exploratory and collaborative design approach is the way forward and presents far less risk to the organisation compared to the large systems procurements of the past.”

For Patchwork, today is an important next step in starting to scale our approach and technology, expanding its use around the country as a movement of practitioners committed to changing the way child protection works. Looking to move beyond the difficult times of the last few years, coming together to refresh ways of working and benefit from the best of what the web has to offer. We hope that Patchwork can act as an example of how design and digital technology can be used to create public services fit for the twenty-first century.