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Case study

Helping social workers triage concerns about children

Every reported concern about a child needs careful attention. But with heavy caseloads and squeezed resources, social workers need to prioritise and process referrals efficiently. Together we designed a system that reduced inappropriate referrals to statutory social care by 66%

BANES One Stop Shop. Image: AHR Architects.

Efficiency without compromising safety

The team in Children’s Services in Bath and Northeast Somerset receive thousands of contacts with concerns about children every year.

Over half of them – mostly from police, health workers or other agencies – don’t meet thresholds for statutory social care, and would be better handled by Early Help and Prevention Services or ‘Universal Services’, such as family support groups.

Reviewing these concerns means diverting qualified social workers away from existing caseloads. Meanwhile, professionals working with children, such as teachers and health visitors, are filling in lengthy referral forms, sometimes by hand, with a ‘better safe than sorry’ mindset, and little knowledge of what happens next.

How might we help referrers confidently direct their concerns to the right source of support first time, and reduce the administrative burden on social work teams?


One blended team, working to GOV.UK standards

The council is keen to adopt user-centred and agile methods and is building it’s own internal service design capability.

So we took a ‘one team’ approach, with a core team of two pandas working alongside three in-house Service Designers, a Technical Lead, the Head of Safeguarding and Principal Social worker from Children’s Services.

We worked in two-week sprints, with a shared backlog of tasks and regular Show & Tells and planning sessions.

Source: Digital by Default service standard

Discovering opportunities

In Discovery, we interviewed and ran workshops with frontline staff and managers, to understand what they needed to get done when processing contacts and how the current approach helps or hinders them.

We also interviewed people from referring organisations – school teachers, police officers, GPs and hospital workers – to understand their motivations, behaviours and needs when they’re concerned about a child.

And we did our desk research – reviewing case management data, reading up about how other councils work and piecing together a detailed map of the current flow of contacts into the service.

It was a very collaborative process, with pandas facilitating and demonstrating activities and everyone getting involved.

We captured research findings as we went along in an Airtable, linking our insights to raw evidence gathered from research.

Insight library image
Insight library in Airtable
Collaborative interview notes
Collaborative interview notes

Turning opportunities into Alphas

Our research revealed fifteen opportunities to make a difference, which we prioritised by potential impact and feasibility.

Then we sketched and scoped four solution ideas for addressing the opportunities to take into Alpha. They were:

Alpha 1: An online landing page and contact screener. The default place for professional referrers to go with a concern. A carefully worded online questionnaire establishes the area and level of concern, then routes the referrer to the appropriate next step.

Alpha 2: An online ‘Request for service’ form. Replacing the existing Word-based referral form with a responsive online form that gathers the right information from referrers and feeds it into the case management system – with minimal manual processing.

Alpha 3: Dashboards and notifications. Referrers are anxious to know their concern is being dealt with, so they often resubmit or call for updates. Automated notifications can provide the reassurance they need and avoid unnecessary contact.

Alpha 4: Redesigning the flow of referrals into teams. The BANES team knew that the way they allocated new referrals to social workers could be improved, for the benefit of both families and staff. They wanted to adopt a Systemic Practice Model and saw this Alpha as an opportunity to explore how that would work with colleagues.

See our Online Discovery Report for all the detail.

Panda’s collaborative ‘one team’ approach has enabled our staff to get to grips with agile and user-centred methods, and learn vital new skills.

Leighton Ballard, Digital Capabilities Manager, Bath & North East Somerset Council

Testing our ideas and risky assumptions

We reconvened in September to begin a 12 week Alpha phase.

We started by calling-out our risky assumptions – i.e. the beliefs we had that needed to be true in order for our ideas to work. Testing these assumptions as efficiently as possible is what the Alpha phase is all about.

Some risky assumptions under-pinning the Online Screener form were:

  • We could produce an online questionnaire that could gather enough accurate and nuanced information to route the contact accurately.
  • We could agree the logic that defines where contacts are routed.
  • We could push data into the Liquid Logic case management system securely and with minimal effort from staff.

So we set about testing these assumptions and others.

Working out the form’s branching logic

Alphas 1 & 2 – Online screener and referral forms.

Alpha activities included:

  • Designing and iterating the online questionnaire with social workers in workshops
  • Mapping and prototyping the online journey through the screener and referral form
  • Testing the prototype with teachers, health workers and other user-groups
  • Testing technical options for passing data into the case management system

Alpha 4 – Redesigning the flow of referrals into teams

Alpha activities included:

  • Prototyping how components of a Systemic Practice Model could work practically in BANES
  • Feedback workshops and co-design sessions with social workers and administrators to test and iterate these proposals
  • Visualising how new processes could work with diagrams, maps, storyboards
  • Meeting with other councils who already work this way to learn from their experience

What happened to Alpha 3 – Notifications and Dashboards? – We agreed to de-prioritise this when the full-scope of Alpha 4 became clearer.

Making the case for Beta

At the end of the 12 weeks the team were convinced these ideas were valuable and usable for both referrers and staff, and feasible to deliver. We estimated that the Online Screener and Request for Service Form alone could reduce time spent processing new contacts by as much as 65%. And the reaction from referrers was very positive.

We summarised our findings  in our Alpha Report and recommended taking Alphas 1, 2, and 4 into Beta.


Post Show & Tell coffee break

Inappropriate referrals cut by two thirds

Before our system was implemented, social workers were spending precious time investigating hundreds of referrals each month that resulted in No Further Action (NFA).

The new system gathers more information from referrers and routes their concerns to the right source of support (Early Help, or universal services in the community) automatically.

As a result NFA’d referrals have been reduced from 57% of all referrals to just 19%. This means social workers are spending their time on the cases that need them most. And referrers are able to get support from others teams more quickly, supporting better outcomes for children and families.

Redesigning the flow of contacts into teams using the The Systemic Practice Model (Alpha 4) is also moving forward. It involves substantial changes to structures, roles and processes, so due HR processes are taking place, and the team is confident they will make the transition.

And the internal team have learned new service design skills, flexed their agile muscles are one step closer to going it alone next time! It was a pleasure working with them and we look forward to continuing to support them on their transformation journey.

Care was taken throughout the project, to ensure that our in-house Service Designers benefited from invaluable knowledge and skills transfer. The resultant enthusiasm, commitment and trust cannot be underestimated.

Jonathan Cordier, Head of Service Design, Bath & Northeast Somerset Council

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