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A clean sweep - From 25 databases to just one

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2012

Derbyshire County Council is the first in the country to amalgamate every piece of information it has about children and families into a single database, to help multi-agency teams do their job more effectively. The council’s head of service ICT for children and young adults, Andy Callow, discussed the challenges and opportunities arising from the project with PSE, and we also hear from Paul Richards, director of children & young people’s services at CACI, which is implementing the data and case management solution.

Big, central databases of information about citizens often come in for criticism in the national press, on the ‘all your eggs in one basket’ principle. Early in its term, the Coalition Government scrapped ContactPoint, the national database of all children under 18 in England set up in the wake of the murder of Victoria Climbié and subsequent Laming report, due to concerns about privacy and civil liberties.

But multiple fragmented, complex, insecure databases are hardly good for children or practitioners, throwing up artificial barriers to good information sharing and unnecessarily sucking up resources in data duplication and re-entry across multiple systems.

In Derbyshire, a legacy of departmental restructures meant that multiple, fractured IT systems were being used by all the different teams associated with children’s services, on both the education and social care sides.

But the county’s Children’s Transformation Programme, launched in 2009, recommended multi-agency teams to improve outcomes and reduce fragmented and duplicated interventions – social workers knocking on the front door, and an education and welfare officer knocking at the back, as one anecdote has it.

Andy Callow, the council’s head of service ICT for children and young adults, said the establishment of a new team structure highlighted the problems with the existing IT infrastructure they were having to work with.

He explained: “The multi-agency teams are currently using five different software systems in a single office, to try to get the full picture about the families they’re working with.

“That’s a clear example of how our current systems don’t reflect our ways of working. The barriers between services needn’t exist: that’s our vision.”

A better way

The council decided to streamline its systems, and went into a long period of procurement and competitive dialogue to find the best way to do so. This has recently culminated in the council signing a five-year contract with CACI to decommission around 25 of its existing databases and implement a single new one for all of children’s services, using the company’s ChildView solution.

CACI’s director of children & young people’s services, Paul Richards, told PSE that this standardisation of previously bespoke databases wouldn’t mean a loss of functionality.

He explained: “We’re talking about a single core database, but we will still have 30 or however many individual tailored business applications at the front-end, which will continue to support the business sectors as before. They won’t lose functionality.”

‘Every service that touches the lives of children’

Callow said: “The focus for us is that this isn’t just an IT project: it’s about how our practitioners need to work, and we’ve purchased a tool that supports them in doing that.”

The council is certainly pioneering in just how many systems it’s integrating, he said: “We did a lot of research and networking with colleagues, and as far as we’re aware, there’s no-one who’s captured the range of services we’re looking at: children’s social care, youth offending, the Connexions youth service, children’s centres, education-based services, school advisers; it really is every service that touches upon the lives of children.”

The procurement process, lasting nearly two years, meant that by the end of it both sides had a very good understanding of each other, and the aims and objectives of the transformation. Richards said: “It was painful, expensive and lengthy – but useful.”

Avoiding acute interventions

Implementation won’t be completed until June 2014, due to the complexity of the shift to the new service. Over 500 people at practitioner level were involved from the start in determining the specification for the project.

Callow said: “At the moment, one thing we can’t see very easily is the collective occurrences within a family’s life; we know from research that a particular family won’t just need support in one particular area. By bringing this information together, we’re allowing multi-agency teams to have an opportunity to intervene early in a situation, before it becomes acute.

“It’s extremely expensive if a family situation becomes more acute, and the outcomes are so much poorer. That’s massive for us: preventing those things from becoming acute. That’s a big saving to the public purse, for the county council and the wider public services involved.

“There are also operational efficiencies; we know there’s things we won’t need to do any more, such as taking information on a spreadsheet out of one system, adding some information to it and re-keying it into a different system.

“On a minor level, this also cuts down the sheer effort of contract management of all of the different software systems we’ve got now, both in the number of contracts, the number of different SLAs, the different times when we can access service desks, and so on. By bringing all that together in one, it’ll help us save time and money.”

Data protection

Clearly information governance and data protection is a huge issue in sensitive family cases. This is built into the new system at every level. Callow said: “We’re absolutely clear that although we’re bringing all this information into a single database, it doesn’t mean everyone will be able to see everything on it. The data model within the ChildView product allows us to be extremely flexible about who sees what. Our underlying remit, reinforced by the Laming report and subsequent reports, is that only the people who need to see the information should see it. If there’s a reason someone needs to see information that ensures the safety of a child, that will be made available.

“ChildView is a single database, but it’s still the actual operational areas are still modular, you start off with a single very high level view of a child, then according to your permissions and job role, you can then drill down into the detail.

“We’ll continue to fulfil data protection responsibilities, while also being able to share that information on a needs-basis. It certainly isn’t a carte blanche for everyone to have access to the database, that would be a very unsafe situation.”

Richards added: “I don’t see our system being any riskier than 30 or 35 separate databases of varying degrees of sophistication and complexity and security – some of which are simply spreadsheets on someone’s laptop. There is the potential for significantly improved security as a result of putting all that information in one place: you know exactly where it is and what you need to secure.

“The system is sitting within the county council’s own domain, so all its existing standards and protocols apply: they have a sophisticated range of security policies and procedures and audits that they manage quite closely. Then within the application itself, we use Oracle Database Security, applied to the role – the individual. So one person signing in will have permission, as a result of the nature of the work they’re doing to see, to view, to edit, to enter information, in very specific parts of the system. That’s controlled right down to database fields. Security is applied at the database level, not the application level, stopping people from getting around it in any way.”

Fitting the jigsaw together

Richards said the current system, with its many distinct programmes and databases, is “like a great big jigsaw puzzle that hasn’t been put together”. He said: “They’ve made an effort to do some integration between the larger key systems – a mechanism for exchanging core information between social care and the intervention / prevention teams, for example, but that’s pretty much on an ad hoc basis, and sometimes via an emailed spreadsheet, for example, with only core demographic information. It’s been a glorified signposting service, rather than providing any real depth of knowledge about what’s going on over the fence.”

The project is part of the department’s wider ‘Journey to Excellence’ initative, reviewing all of its working practices, to move its results from inspections and citizen feedback from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’. Callow said: “This system will, we hope, allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of our services on a longer-term basis and support us on this journey. We’re really excited about the possibilities.”

The clean sweep

Both of them acknowledge the large challenges and risks in such a big piece of work, because of its sheer scale, and because there aren’t many other equivalent ‘clean sweep’ approaches at other councils to learn lesssons from.

Richards said: “The scope of change we’re going to be working with Derbyshire to achieve, in any circumstance, is not to be taken lightly. They’re changing education systems, social care systems, youth offending systems, children’s centres, early years: the whole lot. That’s a big piece of work for any authority and we can’t underestimate the amount of work that’s going to have go into it.

“It would be foolish to assume we won’t have some hitches along the way. There are 35 existing data sources, with one or two terabytes of data that’s got to be vetted, quality-checked, audited, then matched and transformed into the new system.

“Derbyshire is the first authority that we know of to make a ‘clean sweep’ of this scale, into a single database.”

Clearly, the ultimate aim of the project is not just day-to-day efficiency savings, but longterm better outcomes for children and families. The team implementing the single database hope it will mean practitioners spending less time on paperwork, and will give them more accurate and complete information to make decisions.

Richards said: “Improved outcomes are excellent for the child or family, but also drive cost savings: a child going through specialist services of whatever nature will cost five or ten times more than one using universal services.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at [email protected]


Punter   05/06/2013 at 15:41

Wonder how this project is going? I heard it is a bit of a disaster. A software supplier promising to do something not actually possible? Never...

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