Jabed Hussain, head of business support and digital transformation, and Lucy Roberts, head of new business at the not for profit social enterprise, describe its rapid progress in harnessing technology to improve children’s services
Traditionally, ‘digital’ was not a big part of the vocabulary at Achieving for Children (AfC). The community interest company, which is owned by and provides children’s services for the Boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Windsor and Maidenhead, was in the shadows of the digital curve since its creation in 2014.
It shared a common culture in children’s social care in which its staff felt everything had to be done on paper with the relevant signatures – fuelled by its statutory duty of safeguarding children.
It also reflected in the trend in which, while many councils are investing millions in digital transformation, children’s services have often been given a low priority as it is a very risk averse area. Projects have usually been launched in isolation and had a limited impact.
However, since early 2019 a different mindset has taken hold at AfC, with its BeDigital strategy providing the momentum for the rapid adoption of digital solutions and the ambition to further exploit the possibilities technology and the digital age can provide.
It began with a digital maturity assessment, asking staff and stakeholders what they thought the digital team could do to help them make better use of technology. This placed a focus on two priorities: supporting children and young people, and saving time in administrative tasks for our colleagues so they can devote more quality time to sensitive conversations and careful decisions.
The assessment led to the emergence of four key themes as the basis for BeDigital – Achieve, Improve, Empower and Enable – with an open minded approach to how these would be pursued. It has not been prescriptive about the technology solutions, giving us scope to explore the market, leaving all options open, and working with professionals (social workers, practitioners, support staff etc) on what can work best for them.
It has also led to the identification of 13 projects, some of which have now come into fruition while others are in the pipeline. Three of these stand out as particularly important.
One involves using an artificial intelligence voice recording platform – developed with our head of conferencing and review, Caroline Ash – to audio record with automatic text translation all our child protection conferences. It removes the need for minute takers, which along with the reduction in paper used is providing significant savings for the organisation, and ensures we have an accurate record of what was said in the conversations.
There were some worries due to the fact we are recording children’s voices during difficult conversations; but we spent a lot of time working on the issues around consent, information governance and the technical requirements for users, and it is now being used for all the child protection conferences.
Seeing the benefits has prompted staff in the organisation to begin using the technology for other conversations, and we are looking at the possibility of adopting it for social workers’ notes.
The second, currently in the pipeline and backed by funding from the Local Government Association, is a machine learning chatbot for our local offer website. It will go to beta soon with the aim of the live version being up and running in September, earlier than the original plan as many of our users are now forced to go online to look for information during the coronavirus pandemic.
It will help users to navigate the vast amount of information contained on the website for their specific purposes, such as where to find information on transport for children with special educational needs and disabilities, saving them from having to click through the website. We also have other councils expressing an interest in our chatbot development; once it goes live it should be very positive for us and for others to value new age technology
The third major project, potentially a game changer for the sector, involves the use of predictive analytics to assess when a child, referred to us with a safeguarding concern, may come back into the system. We are working on this with an innovation and research body of central government, using a supercomputer and natural language processing to examine all of our case notes on children to identify signs of the need for escalations or further interventions.
This is a research project that will look at whether predictive analytics can be useful in assisting with making decisions and we’re really looking forward to its outcome.
There have been some concerns along the journey about possible resistance among children’s services professionals in using tools like these. However, we have found this can be overcome by robust engagement, pitched in the right way, showing it can support what they are doing and improve outcomes for the children we work with. It is also critical to have the support and buy-in from the senior leadership team, and ours have been very supportive of these initiatives.
This derives partly from the fact that leadership in children’s services is changing as people are coming in from other sectors and realising the scope to use technology used elsewhere. This has been supported by the implementation of a digital board consisting of people from all areas and levels of the organisation, which has been a key step in winning widespread buy-in.
We’re doing everything from the ground up, having learned since AfC was established that changes are most successful when they are developed with the staff; and given the nationwide retention issues among staff in the sector it is very important that we do things with, rather than to them.
One element of this is showing that “digital can be fun”. We’ve highlighted games they can play that harness artificial intelligence to make them aware of its potential to help them in their jobs. We’ve used a light hearted informal strategy approach – and so far it’s worked!
All this is being done within AfC’s regular budgets, with investments made on a case-by-case basis and identifying savings where they can be achieved.
A series of other projects have been launched or are in planning to help our teams improve services. They have included a pilot in the use of Chromebook Spin touchscreen laptops, running from August to October 2019, which supported remote working through capturing information during home visits. Social workers have reported that it made the visits more engaging for the children they work with and we are hoping to roll it out further.
Remote working has also been supported by promoting the use of Google Hangouts and Google Meet through a series of Digital Launch events, reflecting the use of the Google Suite across AfC.
An online booking system has been developed for our Emotional Health Service, increasing the accuracy of recording appointments and enabling users to collect data on issues such as the number of appointments booked and when they take place. One of the results from this was that we identified an increase in appointments booked over the weekend.
Along with this, health service referral forms have been moved to an online system, and we have begun to use the GOV.UK Notify service to communicate with young people, partners and staff through personalised emails and text messages.
Other projects have focused on our administrative processes, such as the use of an audio recording app for our internal meetings, and the roll-out of an electronic signature system for processing invoices. The latter was recently piloted and made it possible to pay suppliers more quickly than ever before, and the digital team has been receiving suggestions from social workers on other processes to which it can be applied.
There has been support for children through the creation of Digital Life Story work, an ongoing project with the Leaving Care Team that enables young people to record their stories through a secure portal. The team is currently piloting the use of video and file sharing within the system.
We are making efforts to help young people leaving our care get to grips with digital technology, notably in the design of a ‘tech room’ at one of our centres that they can use while waiting to see their social worker. This will give them the opportunity to have access to the web, test technologies such as virtual reality devices and have some fun with a gaming console.
Looking forward, we are investigating which of our services, particularly those involving manual and repetitive tasks, could be made more efficient through the application of robotic process automation. We have launched a competition asking teams to submit a bid on which areas of work they believe the technology can be applied, which will feed into a business case for a larger investment.
The importance of data security underpins all of our digital projects, we undertake all the necessary ‘GDPR’ checks before we engage in using a new system. If a system doesn’t meet our security thresholds, then we won’t use it – we’ll find a suitable alternative. This is crucial as protecting information in children's services is paramount in our organisation.
It all amounts to some radical changes in the way we work, including some that go against the traditional culture of children’s services
A couple of important lessons have emerged over the past 14 months. One is that to make the change successfully you have to win the hearts and minds of colleagues, so they feel you are working with them rather than imposing things upon them. We’ve done this by planting seeds, engaging in conversations and inviting them to submit ideas rather than taking a ‘big bang’ roll out approach.
The other is that there is a growing sense of the sector being left behind and a massive demand to innovate, but as with all change there is an element of risk and councils need an appetite for that to go ahead.
Colleagues across the company have really embraced technology and have become excited by what it is able to do. We have had some fantastic comments from our BeDigital events where colleagues said “Wow! This is really going to help me in my job, giving me time to do much more for children."
Underlying all of this is the dominant priority of using digital to improve children’s care services and provide staff with the best possible support to do their jobs well. We can see there is an appetite for this in other councils and we’re keen to share our experience to make this possible more widely.