Sharing the challenges… and working towards some solutions in Brighton & Hove

Well it’s been a busy couple of months of planning and engagement in Brighton & Hove, which has given me plenty to share but little time to do so! So what’s been going on?

As in Lichfield, we’re taking a open and collaborative approach in Brighton & Hove. Having designed a prototype app, we want to work with practitioners to refine and develop it. So I’ve been out and about, meeting front-line staff to introduce them to Patchwork – getting them to think through how it may or may not meet their needs – and what more we can do in the future to make sure we are supporting them to do their jobs even better.

Responses have been positive, with many feeding back that Patchwork would fix a problem for them. It was a particularly gratifying moment when I was sat in a meeting of pastoral staff in schools listening to somebody explain that all they really needed was an easily accessible, visual picture network of people that support a child, complete with contact details. Just what Patchwork provides!

But this project isn’t just about technology. It’s also about service design – understanding how technology complements or supports best working practices. And so the last couple of months has been spent trying to understand the context of multi-agency working. How do practitioners here currently work? How do they share their involvement with a case? How can technology improve behaviours? And what might need to change?

These conversations have been incredibly helpful in understanding the current landscape – both good and bad. But what’s also become apparent is that services are not always aware of the common challenges that they all face in communicating with one another.

Workshop with front-line practitioners

Based on this feedback, we felt is was time to bring together practitioners, from across services and agencies – children’s centres, youth services, housing, health visitors, school nurses, community safety, police, probation – to surface and share these challenges, outside of their silos. So we recently held a workshop with over 65 frontline practitioners to start discussing these issues openly.

An activity about how practitioners share their involvement with a child, revealed interesting responses about the ease of establishing contact and developing relationships with other services:

“There are issues around finding out who the officer is for a given family”

“Difficult to establish who is working with a client. Clients can be unclear who is their worker and from what agency they come”

“Their relationship is very important to us. But we are not informed or contacted about service involvement with a client”

“I’ve had children in my care who were on the child protection register and I didn’t even know about it”

“Other agencies value their input more than they value the input of other agencies”

“The fact there they have a relationship with a client is sensitive information in itself”

Allowing practitioners to share some of their struggles openly was important and cathartic. It helps us reach a collective understanding of the challenges and is a necessary step to an acceptance of shared solutions. With these challenges in mind, we looked at what Patchwork might have to offer. Gez, Patchwork’s Product Manager, gave a walk through of the prototype app.

As expected, there was no shortage of questions and suggestions,

“can you limit information that some people are able to see?”

“can you see other practitioner’s profiles?”

“are you able to group family members together/see familial relationships?”

“ are you able to see how recent contact is between a client and a practitioner?”

“is there a timeline of involvement with the child?”

“could you add in task list and assign tasks to practitioners involved in case?”

“is there an email notification every time something changes on one of your cases?”

Lots for Gez to take away and think about for V1, while the rest of the team gets on top of our next steps.

Turning the app live! So the next key milestone is to turn the app live! We’re hoping once practitioners use it for real, they’ll be able to tell us more of what they want, and what they don’t. It’ll also give us a better sense of the user experience of Patchwork. The app will be turned live late in February and tested throughout March and early April.

Working through information governance issues. We’ve spoken before about our issues with information governance. The pilot in Brighton & Hove is helping us come to a clear and unequivocal understanding of what is and isn’t allowed.

Legal advice has established that it is appropriate for Patchwork to allow practitioners to share their involvement with a child’s case without explicit consent, to others who are providing support to a child (except if sensitive information is being shared). For some services, for example substance misuse and mental health, disclosing their contact with a child is problematic as the involvement is sensitive information in and of itself.

These services have therefore been precluded from the testing phase while we continue to work through these issues. Over the next couple of months we’ll want to really get to grips with this and work closely with those services and consider how Patchwork could evolve to accommodate them.

Working with children and families. A final important strand will be talking to children and families. Practitioners have fed back that they want to be reassured that children and families feel OK about Patchwork. It’s a concern for us too, so we’re going to be speaking to some families about how they feel about the people working with them using Patchwork to help co-ordinate their support better.

So, all in all, a productive and constructive start but lots more to do!

Taking a step into the future – the end of the beginning

Safeguarding 2.0 – Invitation to a Milestone Event

When: 18 May (9am – 12pm)
Where: NESTA, 1 Plough Place, London. EC4A 1DE

The Safeguarding 2.0 project is now at the end of its first phase.  What started as a round-table discussion at the Local Government Information Unit with practitioners and social web enthusiasts has developed into a journey that has uncovered the technological and behavioural challenges facing safeguarding professionals.  We formed a project team withThinkPublic and Headshift, funded by Nesta and ECDP, and working in partnership Westminster City Council. Our research has led us to some important conclusions about ways to help all those involved in safeguarding children, which the project team is excited to share with you.

As well as presenting the findings of the first phase of the project there will be plenty of discussion throughout, along with a chance to talk about the next phase of the project and opportunities for getting involved.

We hope to see you there – please let us know if you can make it by emailing carrie [dot] bishop [at] futuregovconsultancy [dot] com

WHEN we hosted a round table discussion last August on how web technology might offer new and more effective ways to safeguard vulnerable children,  it would have taken a brave person to stand up and say ‘I know where this is going.’  The truth is no-one at that initial Safeguarding 2.0 meeting did know where the project might lead or what inspiration it might produce.

That was the challenge facing a committed team of passionate people determined to take an exploratory step into the unknown in a bid to discover if new technology could reap real benefits for beleaguered social workers struggling to make the world a safer place for kids.

It was a massive ask and without real enthusiasm from the whole Safeguarding project team, might never have got off the ground. For a start at that first meeting, Futuregov and team partners thinkpublic, Headshift, the Local Government Information Unit, and Westminster Council moved forward without even the assurance that technology could or would offer any sort of an answer. The solution, we freely admitted, might be something entirely different.

But as the project progressed, with particular thanks to the in-depth research of thinkpublic who listened and talked to social workers and other professionals,  it became clear that some sort of technology to help everyone involved in a safeguarding team to communicate better was the way ahead. Especially if it enabled the whole story of a child to be more easily recorded and heard and – vitally – acted upon.

Now in a relatively short time, the first phase of the initial project sparked by Safeguarding 2.0 is nearing its final stages and the ideas, thoughts and plans are being pulled together to formulate what imaginative piece of technology could help those struggling against a backdrop of one high profile tragedy after another to cope with the increasingly heavy burden of safeguarding children.  The team’s findings will be presented at an event on 18 May at Nesta, to which all are welcome, which will show what we’ve learned and what we think could help safeguarding practitioners.

What the project has been determined to do is not to foist any new piece of technology on social workers. The real aim has always been to discover what they need and want as well as asking what they believe are the gaps in their present armoury which need plugging. In other words, the technologists at Headshift needed to know what they produced was not only needed, but wanted too.

With the first phase nearing completion, the project team can see that a second phase is viable. The project inevitably has only scratched the surface of providing better communication in what has to be one of the most desperately difficult problems to solve. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, is the often-quoted slogan. But in the light of social services departments such as Birmingham’s being judged ‘unfit for purpose‘, there is no room to judge that something, somewhere doesn’t need fixing. So phase one of Safeguarding 2.0 is merely a step along the way to offer web technology as a tool to prevent mistakes and ultimately save lives.

The challenge of phase two will be for the project team to develop an innovative prototype – but that as everyone knows will need funding from not only a local authority with a stake in the outcome, but from grants and perhaps a partnership with a technology provider like a mobile phone manufacturer.

It only remains at this first-step stage at the end of the beginning for the project team to make its final report pointing up the exciting possibilities ahead. One small step for safeguarding… but a small step leading to a future of endless possibilities.

Photo: tymesynk on Flickr

Safeguarding 2.0 – the story so far

Round the meeting table

WHEN it comes to meetings, there are (yawn) meetings – and then there are (Ooh!) meetings. The session at the LGiU on Friday at the half way stage of Safeguarding 2.0 turned out to be one of those rare inspirational MEETINGS worthy of big, bold capital letters. Everyone round the table agreed  the gathering to review the project’s progress  was buzzing loudly with hope and enthusiasm.

Right from the start, ideas bounced off the walls faster than Andy Murray’s blockbuster serves and there was some passionate pulling and tugging across the table over the aims and achievements of the project’s ambition to find potential solutions on how to better protect vulnerable children using the power of the web.

The discussion threw up plenty of debate on what had gone before and provided some fascinating paths for the project to explore in the weeks ahead. That included a novel idea from blogger Johnnie Moore who suggested unpicking the complicated organisation and intricate thinking behind something as fascinating and unrelated as a Formula One race team might throw up a  winning chequered flag solution to cut through the “horrible regulation” surrounding social work!  Could it be that the more we have tried to put things right in safeguarding, the more we have created confusion? So taking everything back-to-basics might indeed be the Holy Grail for social workers desperate to spend time with needy families, but  sinking under the burden of forms, systems and tick boxes?

Blogger and school governor Matthew Rees was moved in a post-meeting blog post, to gleefully report that this was one of the best meetings he had been to in many a year. Undeniably what came across loud and clear  from the Safeguarding 2.0 research is that social workers have a massive workload and a palpable fear of anything from outside which could compromise confidentiality and damage relationships with their clients. The feedback too from professionals already mistrustful of technology was that the job was busy enough and they “really didn’t need another ‘gadget’ to work with.”

That was the quandry everyone at the meeting was left to ponder. What piece of technology would, could, should make a difference to ensuring Baby Peter failings never happen? Or as FutureGov’s Dominic Campbell admitted, would the project discover the real solution was no piece of technology at all?

The Safeguarding 2.0 project does take one firm standpoint though. It is important when tragedies happen we never shrug our shoulders and think nothing can be done because the problem is too huge.

Given that firm foothold, the halfway report from project leader Carrie Bishop of FutureGov clearly laid out the story so far on how Safeguarding 2.0 is working to discover what, if any,  web technology can help join up the vital dots to help complete the whole revealing picture of a  vulnerable child’s life in a vulnerable family and so prevent another Baby Peter tragedy.

She emphasised that from the very beginning it was felt the project could throw up  everything – or nothing. That was the challenge at the start-up meeting which sparked huge enthusiasm. Since then FutureGov has gathered together a committed team from the LGiU, Think Public, Headshift and Barnardo’s which undaunted by the mammoth task ahead,  moved the project forward to take a step into the unknown in a bid to  uncover the problems facing professionals and families and build possible solutions.

The project began mid-January with key to the work being the co-operation of  social workers which team member Thinkpublic researchers knew was vital in their bid to build a clear picture of their hectic working day and what innovative piece of technology might contribute to making it click better and more efficiently into place.

So herograms and thanks all round at this point to everyone in Westminster City Council who have come on board to share their thoughts and help the project understand the work challenges they face every day.  It became clear at an early stage that the  social workers Thinkpublic researchers  talked to believe confidentiality is paramount in their work. Those of us not involved with such  acutely sensitive work might be forgiven for believing when professionals seal a  case conference room  to the extent of covering over a glass door panel to protect intimate  information projected onto a wall, we are moving into the realms of  Spooks. Also, surely it is a measure of how technology is regarded as ‘unsafe’ that faxes and paper files are considered okay, but email information and the like are seen as easy to penetrate.  Perhaps too, a  bunker mentality is inevitable among social workers who fear the ever-present glare of public criticism particularly from a tabloid press rushing to blame in the aftermath of failings like Baby Peter.

The mistrust of technology and outside agencies turned into one of  the truly fascinating debates at the meeting with Thinkpublic‘s Ian Drysdale admitting it was taking time to win the trust of busy professionals. He had hoped to show a film of a day in the life of a social worker, but time and opportunity had proved elusive. But as the LGiU‘s   Jasmine Ali encouragingly pointed out, the problems were not insurmountable as the growing co-operation with Westminster Council proved.

Ian Drysdale presenting

Matthew Rees said social workers were proving to be afraid of “something which isn’t happening” when it came to stolen data captured by technology.  He believed the initial challenge faced by Safeguarding 2.0 was to discover how social workers could share “day-to-day stuff” –  the low level intuitive feeling that something is wrong which when collated into a pattern, might  prove vital. “Almost the Twitter of passing on information,” he said.

Amy Wagner,  head of projects at team partner Headshift , saw the challenge as “how can we add to what is being done already. If something doesn’t make it onto the spreadsheet it is lost. Perhaps we can explore ways to catching that data?” That was echoed in three salient points by Carrie Bishop. One; that story-telling by social workers requires input. Two; easy visualisation of  data “more about making sense of the madness.” And three; how to capture low-level intelligence.

So what could be the answer? The halfway report recognises there may not be a definitive answer in a highly complex working environment of relationships and personalities. It also believes much more time is needed to build up trust with social workers to make testing any ‘tool’ smoother.

What would be the ideal at this stage seems to bes a mobile application which would support informal communication and provide visualisation of existing data.

So at the end of an exciting and productive meeting between team and partners, what are the next steps? Well, the project hopes to begin to scope a tool to be built and tested as part of a second phase while continuing to add to an important research base.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the project so please get in touch if you’d like to be involved – leave us a comment or contact carrie [dot] bishop [at] futuregovconsultancy [dot] com