Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council
Family Context Open-source Digital Tool
Briefly describe the initiative/ project/service; please include your aims and objectives
We created the Family Context tool to see if we could apply data and digital solutions to help ensure more young people are well looked after by their families and fewer end up in care. We wanted to provide social workers with easier access to contextual information, support child referrals more efficiently and enable social workers to spend more time helping children and their families.
Safeguarding and supporting vulnerable children is a statutory duty of Local Authorities. Every day, Local Authorities make decisions on the most vulnerable children, decisions that can have a massive impact on their lives. The correct decision will help to protect the children from harm and help ensure the families get the right support. The wrong decision may mean the wrong support and potentially puts the child at risk. Budget cuts and increased demand mean Local Authorities cannot afford to provide inappropriate support. We need to make the right decision the first time, reducing the likelihood of costly escalation. The Family Context tool significantly reduces intensive manual data-sharing processes, harnessing the power of our data more effectively. It enables front-line workers to identify the services working with vulnerable children and better understand family relationships and risks. Family Context benefits families by improving decision-making and enabling more effective coordination of the support that safeguards children.
Family Context emerged from a workshop with 12 local authorities to discuss improving the outcomes of vulnerable children. All 12 agreed that social workers seldom have access to all the information they need on a child and their family when deciding whether there is a safeguarding risk and what support is most appropriate. Lack of joined-up information results in intensive manual data-sharing processes and time-consuming ad-hoc, and sometimes inappropriate, information sharing and requests.
“Poor information sharing between multi-agency partnerships […] is a compounding factor that can lead to the serious harm, abuse or death of a child.”
With funding from the DLUHC, Stockport Council and partners set out to identify a solution that would give social workers a more holistic understanding of which services are involved with children and their families and support them to make the right decisions to safeguard children. We aimed to tackle the problem of how best to provide social workers with key information on relevant people in a family and the services engaged with them when they first interact with the family.
We used agile principles and extensive user research to understand and frame the problem and iterate possible solutions with social workers. During this work’s discovery and alpha phases, we discovered that social workers sometimes have incomplete information, which can change decisions and outcomes for children and families. They waste time chasing information they would prefer to spend with the family.
User research helped us to narrow down the datasets that would provide the most value to the decision-making process. We found that social workers want access to the contact details of the lead practitioner of a case from other services and basic information on when the service was last involved with the family.
Following a Covid-related delay, we moved on to our beta pilot in October 2021. Using open-source technologies, we developed a digital tool to support social workers, bringing together adults’ and children’s social care, education and housing data. We populated the tool with live data that provides basic information on service involvement and contact details of relevant professionals for social workers. The tool is simple, intuitive, and meets the necessary accessibility criteria. Social workers access the tool using The same username and password as their case management system login details, making the user process easier. We piloted the tool with nine social workers. Feedback and evaluation were overwhelmingly positive, and in collaboration with Ealing Council, we continue developing the tool with further DLUHC funding.
During this phase, we have rolled out the tool to all Stockport Council social workers. We continue to expand the number of datasets in the tool, with further educational information and information from the Youth Offending Service now being added. We are working closely with other Local Authorities, sharing progress and challenges, and ensuring we continue to develop software suitable for universal use.
We meet the Local Digital Declaration’s objectives by working collaboratively with other Local Authorities and sharing progress in the open. We have designed a solution that will benefit multiple authorities and provide better outcomes for families in other areas.
What are the key achievements?
Collaboration between local authorities to solve a national problem
The development of the Family Context tool has been a genuinely collaborative achievement. We worked initially with Leeds City Council and latterly with Ealing Council whilst also collaborating with multiple other Local Authorities to solve a national problem. We have created open-source software and training that can be replicated in other local authorities, bringing the same benefits to their social workers. The benefits achieved by the project will rise as the tool is adopted by other authorities.
Benefits achieved for children and families. It frees up time for social workers, who can spend more time with families as a result. It saves social workers over 2 hours on average for each new referral. Without Family Context, most searches would take 2-3 hours or more. However, using Family Context, the average search is now 20 minutes. Over a year, this can save each social worker 184 hours (15 hours a month), with a total time saving for all the social workers at Stockport Council estimated at 18,403 hours per year (1,534 per month). Additional hours that they can spend face-to-face with families.
Quotes from social workers using the tool underline this:
“Time, time, time. It’s absolutely amazing to be able to bring everything together very quickly. We’re so busy that being able to do something in 20 minutes rather than 2 hours makes such a difference to us.”
“You can spend a lot of time setting up a ‘Team around the child’ meeting… a couple of weeks. If the info is on there, you go straight to it – boom, boom, boom and send the invites out right away.”
“We’re so busy that being able to do something in 20 minutes rather than 2 hours makes such a difference to us”
“I’ve been able to invite people to strategy meetings in minutes rather than hours”
In cases of complex need, with multiple services involved, services around a family are better connected. Having information at their fingertips empowers social workers to make informed decisions more quickly, enabling immediate action, for example, child safeguarding. One social worker commented: “I used Family Context to contact the primary lead and got the information back in that same meeting and fed that in – it helped inform what that intervention was going to be for that family.”
By providing new information they would not otherwise have seen, children are protected from harm even when no single service perceives significant risk. Social workers comment:
“One piece of information can change the decision for a family.”
“I’d looked at a family and seen there were rent arrears, so I went to her to talk about it. I’d never have had that information had I not seen it on there. I just wouldn’t have asked. Unless they’re at a point of eviction, you don’t know.”
In some cases, using data in this way has enabled immediate action:
“I was able to find the name of a child who the Foster Carers thought this child was with and an address, and that a quite dangerous person was attached to that address – I informed the police. In this case, it might have saved this young person from being in a dangerous situation.”
Benefits achieved for the council
In addition to reducing risks to vulnerable children, Family Context ensures all families view social workers as people who really understand their circumstances and can support them. Family Context is leading to significant improvements in service delivery, saving thousands of hours of social worker time and making the most of our resources. In an era of budget cuts and faced with increasing demand, Local Authorities need to provide inappropriate support as quickly as possible and reduce the costly escalation of cases. And with savings identified of over 18,000 hours per year with all social workers at Stockport Council using the tool, more families can be seen, and more quickly.
Returning to our original aims, we have succeeded in providing social workers with easier access to contextual information to support child referrals more efficiently and enable social workers to spend more time helping children and their families. We have successfully applied data and digital solutions to provide significant benefits to families and make a difference in young people’s lives. Family Context supports our objectives of reducing intensive manual data-sharing processes, and by working collaboratively with other Local Authorities, using agile principles and sharing progress in the open, we have designed a solution that will work for multiple authorities.
How innovative is your initiative?
Family Context puts ethics first
Data ethics were central to the development of the tool, which includes data from four different services. We worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office from the outset, not just complying with legislation such as GDPR but also incorporating ethics during the design process to ensure:
– Information is shared to enable conversations and allow better multi-agency working during the social worker assessment.
– The tool uses the minimum data necessary to achieve its purpose. There was rigorous testing with social workers to identify the minimum data fields needed from each service instead of complete data sets.
– Families felt comfortable with the information on their involvement with other services being shared with social workers.
– There is clarity around the sources, the period it covers, and the level of confidence in the data so social workers are aware of the potential limitations
We involved social workers in choosing the locality to run the pilot, user research, digital testing and training, and supporting and communicating to staff about the new tool. As well as Information Governance colleagues, we involved Business Analysts for scoping and analysis, Data Analysts for back-end developments and Data Architects for front-end developments. The project used agile, iterative development. The team prioritised user needs over the technical investigation at alpha, employing low-tech paper prototypes, digital mock-ups and a Microsoft Excel prototype for a final pilot using live data. For the beta pilot, we created a simple working tool and populated it with live data on service involvement and the contact details of relevant professionals. These great collaborative working relationships resulted in an inherently usable and intuitive tool that social workers have readily adopted and helped resolve issues around data sharing and matching.
Developed with users for users
We built Family Context around social workers and their need for more information. We worked with them at all stages of development, iterating collaboratively to ensure it met their needs. The product results from extensive research and testing with social workers around the country, and it was encouraging to see testers continue to use the tool without prompting after the pilot ended. Family Context has now been rolled out to all Stockport Council social workers, who use it for new assessments, quick checks with existing cases, case handovers, and to support newly qualified social workers. Social workers like the tool and report it is easy to use:
“I’ve always found it easy to use. I expected it to be more complicated.”
“The key thing is it is easy. I’ve not had any misses. I’ve not spent more than 5-10 minutes searching.”
“It’s pretty idiot-proof!”
“I found it really easy – and I’m a bit of a dinosaur. At home I always get my kids to sort tech things.”
This usability is a testament to the user input throughout the design and development process and the training and engagement strategy that accompanied the development and rollout of the tool.
Due to time constraints and job pressures, it’s not easy getting social workers to engage with projects, even those designed to benefit them. The project lead for the rollout was a qualified social worker who understood their challenges. Engagement was the key to take-up, and hearing from ‘one of them’ helped them get on board.
We made it as easy as possible for them to access the tool, with a shortcut on their existing case management system and a single sign to remove barriers to login. We created comprehensive training guides and attended team meetings to explain how the tool would benefit them and help them gather information much faster, and train them to use the tool. We monitor usage using our analytics tool, which shows how many people log in daily, what they view and individual usage. We revisit team meetings to check in with workers and understand what is holding back those who used it sporadically or not at all. Monitoring continues to inform the project.
Aggregating data from different sources isn’t easy where multiple services, IT systems and a legacy of manual data processes have resulted in disparate, siloed data. To manage our data effectively, we have created a common data standard to overcome difficulties with matching and aggregating data from different sources, such as education, children’s and housing services and to integrate with partners securely. Our Data Warehouse combines disparate datasets from across the council and other organisations. It restructures them for reporting purposes, supporting quicker and more effective insight generation using our Business Intelligence team’s in-housemaster data management solution. Our data warehousing and analytical capabilities are the keys to a more joined-up approach to problem-solving.
What are the key learning points?
Family Context is open source. Developed collaboratively, we have open sourced the tool and guidance to enable other local authorities to implement Family Context, bringing the same benefits to their social workers. Code and design are aligned to GDS principles and all the work is publicly available in the project GitHub page, where you can find:
– insights from all the user research conducted to date
– the common data model
– the business case
– a video demo of the tool
– the reference application, which includes the open code related to the API and user interface
– an Implementation Guide that explains step-by-step how a new local authority might want to approach Family Context and implement it locally
We partnered with Leeds City Council and Social Finance during Alpha (and Beta?) and Ealing Council for the rollout. We have established a collaborative project structure including monthly catch-ups with Ealing Council as well as with the DLUHC, who are funding the project.
We have set up a SharePoint site so we can share all our practice and learning. Information uploaded includes:
– steering group minutes
– up-to-date Data Protection Impact Assessment
– project plan
– training materials
– promotional video and other useful information
Social Finance, who undertook the original pilot, continue to support the tool and open it up to other Local Authorities.
The software is also suitable for replication across other areas of our business. We plan to repurpose the underlying technology to support other digital transformation initiatives, helping achieve better outcomes for citizens whilst also making the most of our resources and helping to consolidate communications and support.
– sharing alerts with GPs, so they know if a child is known to social care services
– using the data matching algorithms to create single views, e.g. one view of debt shared across the council and housing associations
Learning: Acting on feedback
Suggestions from beta included changes to the front end (dashboard) and adding an up-to-date contact number or email address (or both) for families. Where multiple entries are found, we take this from the system with the most up-to-date number, as we often discover that if a family has not been known to us for quite a while, the number may not always be up to date on all systems.The biggest message for improvement has been the demand for more data, which would help strengthen work, paint a fuller picture of agency involvement with each family at any time, and make much more informed decisions.
Challenge: The need to add more data sets
This work is still ongoing with a focus on Youth Offending Service data, Probation data, Health data and additional Education data. We are keen to collaborate with others to assist in developing information governance gateways for some of the more complicated datasets, such as probation and health. Due to Information Governance implications, we have not been successful in obtaining Greater Manchester Police data. However, we already have a positive partnership between GMP and Social Care, who are co-located in our Multi-Agency Safeguarding and Support Hub (MASSH). Working alongside other agencies, this partnership has already earned a Stockport Commander’s Commendation for the risk management process implemented to review all high-risk domestic abuse cases and put in place meaningful safeguarding measures.
Learning: Service Engagement
Thanks to the iterative collaborative development process, users like the tool and report that it is easy to use. It is vital to continue to engage the service in order to continue to review developments as they are delivered. Following agile principles we were able to nominate and form Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and Champion groups to be used as the Testing groups when new elements of the tool require testing. SMEs and Champion groups can also be used to gather information on updated task timings when new elements are added to the tool A key issue has been getting input from the service due to busy schedules and time constraints as indicated above. Finding time to take part in research activities was the most common challenge.