A system causing unnecessary work
In 2018 the number of children in care in the borough of Torfaen in South Wales was the highest per capita in Wales.
Providing foster care is costly for local authorities, and doesn’t generally create the best outcomes for children and families, so Torfaen’s Children’s Services team were keen to reduce the numbers.
Earlier intervention was seen as part of the solution. But it’s hard for social workers to be proactive when they’re spending a large portion of their time investigating well-meaning, but often poorly articulated, concerns from professionals working with children.
A better way of reporting concerns was needed. One that
- is easy for professionals to access and simple to use
- captures the nuanced information needed to help social workers make decisions
- directs concerns to the right source of support, first time
Identifying opportunities to make a difference
Our initial brief was very broad – to help Torfaen CBC find ways to safely reduce their numbers of Children Looked After.
We began with an eight week Discovery process. And as we dug into the problem, it became clear that if we could save social workers time, it would enable them to be more proactive, making a difference in children’s lives earlier, before taking them into care becomes the only viable option.
So we began looking for ways to save social workers time, with a specific focus on the ‘Front Door’ – i.e. the way in which contacts about children come into Children’s Services and how they are processed.
At the end of Discovery, we identified four potential Alphas (ideas for services) that we felt could make a difference.
- A multi agency safeguarding service hub, or MASSH. In a MASSH, social workers, police officers, education and health staff work as a team to review incoming concerns. MASSH’s reduce the back and forth between agencies because all the information about a child/family from all the services is available to decision makers.
- Dashboards and notifications. Lots of contacts are from people checking on the status of a reported concern. Could we meet that need by providing automated updates?
- Smart contact processing. Social workers and administrative staff were spending too long investigating reports which were inappropriate for Social Care and should have been be directed to ‘Early Help’ or community services.
- Better online resources and signposting. Our research told us that professionals often refer to Social Care because they don’t know where else to go. An online resource with signposting to local services would help them find more appropriate support faster.
Choosing a focus
The Children’s Services team were already interested in setting up a MASSH. So they implemented that directly after our discovery was complete.
Implementing dashboards and notifications meant getting some changes made to WCCIS, the health and social care case management software used by many councils in Wales. We explored this, but decided not to pursue it.
Similarly, signposting is currently handled by dewis.wales a centralised database of local wellbeing services. We shared our research insight with the Dewis team in the hope that they would improve their search capabilities to enable us to deep-link to services based on the topic of concern.
However, the area we had most control over, and that we felt might make the biggest difference, was Smarter Contact Processing.
Prototyping and testing solution ideas
In Alpha we prototyped an online form for professionals that would route their concern to the right source of support according to their answers to carefully worded questions.
The logic in the form (based on the council’s official Thresholds of Need guidance) enabled the social care team to decide which levels of concern would come direct to the MASSH, and which would be routed to Families First (part of the Early Intervention and Prevention offer in Torfaen), or to a webpage of targeted advice and guidance. We called this form the Online Contact Gateway for Children’s Services.
We tested and iterated the Alpha prototype with feedback from teachers and health visitors, as well as the social workers who receive reports to ensure that we had a working solution. We then costed the design and build of the solution and it was agreed to proceed to Beta.
The team fully understood the needs of our service and were very open to discuss any ideas we had.
Rhian Brook, Team Leader, Children Services MASSH
Building the solution and gathering ongoing feedback from users
In Beta we turned our clickable prototypes into a working digital service.
We partnered with UX Forms for the build. Their platform is already in use elsewhere in Government, and the GOV.UK Design System is already built in, so we were able to make fast progress building out the forms and the logic. UX Forms is also a securely hosted service, which enabled us to minimise the burden on Torfaen’s IT department.
Fast tracks and speed bumps
One of the things we spent most time on was the wording and order of the questions. We had to strike a balance between making it quick and easy to report a concern, whilst also asking reporters to think carefully about what they had seen and provide useful information.
We settled on a Red Flag approach. If a concern relates to any one of our Red Flags (e.g. concerns about sexual abuse) then it is is fast tracked through the system. But where the concern is more nuanced, e.g. concerns about emotional health and social development, we ask the reporter to think more holistically about the child and offer more information.
We heard from reporters that they felt guided in a way they hadn’t with the previous process.
More appropriate reports, more easily submitted
We ran a beta trail for 12 months from March 2021 to March 2022 and the results were significant.
Schools preferred using the new online service. In our feedback sessions they reported finding it more convenient to access and easier to use. They also liked being guided through a series of questions that made them think more carefully about their concern.
Secondly, the quality of their reports increased. Appropriate reports from schools using the new service increased by 20 percent. While appropriate reports from schools using the old method fell by 27 percent over the same period.
This means that social workers receiving reports via the new forms are spending less time investigating inappropriate or poorly articulated concerns. Which means they can spend more time with the families that need them most.
With the Beta trail complete the new online service has now replaced the old Word forms in all schools across Torfaen. The next focus is on rolling it out to healthcare settings.
Panda has greatly assisted us in service design aimed at balancing demand and capacity, whilst improving the service users experience. They have been very solution focussed and adapted to challenges to achieve the end result. I would highly recommend their services.
Jason O’Brien, Head of Social Services, Torfaen Borough Council