The Baby P case has raised the issue of child protection in recent weeks. Failures at Haringey Council led to the death of the 17-month old, but the concern now is that these problems are systemic, not isolated - and poor IT is playing its part.
The IT system - the Integrated Children's System (ICS) - that social workers use to manage their case load has been pinpointed as one of the problems at Haringey Council. Haringey, however, is not the only local authority to report problems with the system. Academics and charities in close contact with social workers claim the ICS system is generally unfit for the purpose of helping social workers protect children.
One complaint is that form-filling takes too much of social workers' time, leaving them with less time for working directly with children and families. Sue White and Karen Broadhurst from the University of Lancaster, Chris Hall from the University of Huddersfield and Dave Wastell, from the University of Nottingham, looked at the impact of performance management on front-line services at five local authorities in England and Wales. They say: "One assumes Baby P's records in ICS were complete and up-to-date, but the complex sense-making that may have saved him will have been compromised as a result."
They also point to the performance targets that social workers are given under the system. Not only does the ICS take up too much time, it encourages social workers to aim for the wrong goals. They must aim to move cases forward a stage within the required timescale. If a case flashes a red light, it indicates they must concentrate on moving that case to the system's next stage.
The academics say in their report: "Switching off the flashing red light bears no relationship to protecting a child - something of which social workers and managers are acutely aware, but workflow slippages carry sanctions."
Terri Dowty, director of the campaign group Action on Rights for Children, says the design of the system is inherently flawed, because front-line users were insufficiently consulted at the design stage. "The problem is that it's a 'top down' system," she says. "It's making people change the way they work to fit the system. They didn't go out and ask social workers what they wanted to see."
Even IT suppliers who work with councils admit there are issues with the ICS. Denise Harrison is co-founder of Liquid Logic, which has installed the system in 28 councils. She insists having an electronic care record such as this one is better than not having one at all, and explains that some of the problems stem from many social workers not being used to IT.
"Social services traditionally haven't used IT because of the personal nature of the job," she says. "This system is imposing a way of working on them that in many ways will give them less flexibility. In the past, they won't have had to follow an exact pathway." She says user-friendliness is an issue, although this varies with different implementations of the system. But despite the problems, she says, the ICS has in many ways achieved what it set out to do: provide an evidence base for how decisions are made, and systemise the collection of information about children and their families.
But the criticisms are unavoidable and the consensus appears to be that, while the aims are applauded, the ICS's method is not the right one. David Wastell, professor of information systems at the University of Nottingham, says the ICS attempts to restructure practice in two ways: by focusing on performance management and by moving social work away from pure child protection to a more holistic approach to child welfare.
"There is nothing much wrong with this framework in principle," he says. "The problem is with implementation. The framework has been operationalised in ICS via a vast plethora of incredibly long and repetitive forms, which busy social workers just do not have time to complete. A core assessment form is around 35 pages long."
The system was rolled out after Lord Laming's review of social care, following the death of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie in 2000. Its aim was to improve communication, but Terri Dowty is not convinced the ICS was the right answer.
"I have the feeling that the government has something of a bunker mentality in the wake of Baby P," she says. "Lord Laming is going round looking at how well his reforms have been implemented. But the question is, whether these reforms were the right ones to implement."