Abstract The problems with current forms of electronic information systems (IS) being used by social welfare agencies have been documented by researchers internationally and attention is turning to how they might be better designed and used. In this article, drawing from ethnographic research about IS implementation and evaluation with a number of social welfare agencies, two different approaches—one simple and one complex—to designing and using IS in social welfare agencies are presented. The advantages and disadvantages of each approach, as emerged from discussions with research participants, are explored. The aim of the article is to assist both decision makers and practitioners in social welfare agencies to clarify their needs in relation to how future IS are designed and used. Social work and IT, information system, technology design Introduction There has been continual and widespread concern about the failure of general public sector information and communication technology projects, such as electronic ticketing for transport systems, ehealth initiatives and electronic information systems (IS) (see Gilbert and Tobin, 2013; Audit Scotland, 2017). Aside from this concern, a significant critique of IS being used in social welfare agencies has emerged over the last decade in England (e.g. Peckover et al., 2008; Pithouse et al., 2009; Shaw et al., 2009; Broadhurst et al., 2010; Munro, 2011) and internationally (Saario and Stepney, 2009; Bradt et al., 2011; Huuskonen and Vakkari, 2013). Ince and Griffths (2011) provide a detailed list of the deficits identified with IS, which can be summarised as follows: they are not ‘fit for purpose’ and lack functionality; they are costly to purchase, implement and maintain, impairing rather than improving organisational efficiency; the demands that they make of practitioners’ work time take them away from the core business of working with service users; and they impair decision making, are over-complex and a source of frustration to practitioners. Attention has turned to how IS might be better designed and used. In this article, drawing from five years of ethnographic research in social welfare agencies in Europe and Australasia, two distinct ways of designing and using IS in social welfare agencies are presented. From the author’s observations, these two distinct designs exist at the ends of a continuum and an IS in any agency might include the characteristics of both. For the sake of analysis, though, these designs are considered in their simplest and most complex forms. Drawing from observations and discussions with participants in the research, these two forms are described and their advantages and disadvantages explored. The social welfare sector has struggled to define its needs in relation to IS (Senyucel, 2008) and the aim of this article is to assist both decision makers and practitioners to clarify their needs in relation to how future IS are designed and used. The research The author is engaged in a programme of research, funded by the Australian Research Council, which aims to generate knowledge that will inform future designs of electronic IS for use in social welfare agencies. The author has established partnerships with non-government agencies that provide a range of social services. Through these partnerships, detailed studies are underway of how agencies are using and transforming IS and engaging with emerging forms of IS, with a particular focus on how IS affect the daily work of social workers. Permission to conduct the research has been provided by the University of Queensland Human Research Ethics Committee. A number of articles have emerged from this research that consider different aspects of the use and design of IS, such as participatory design (Gillingham, 2015a) and processes within participatory design (Gillingham, 2015b). The research approach is ethnographic, involving observations, interview and some documentary analysis. For a detailed account of the research process, see Gillingham (2015a). In this article, discussions with a range of stakeholders in social welfare agencies are drawn upon, from front line practitioners to team leaders, managers and information and communication technology (ICT) staff to describe the different forms of IS observed in the research and to articulate a range of the advantages and disadvantages of both. Complex IS The Integrated Children’s System (ICS) that was mandated for use by local authority children’s services in England, the Client Record Information System as used in the Victorian Child Protection Service in Australia and the Child Index in Holland are examples of complex IS. They contain multiple fields for demographic information about children, parents and the services involved with a family, free text areas where case notes can be recorded and multiple areas for recording information about, for example, court action, case planning and child development. Similar designs are also being used on other fields of practice such as disability, aged care and mental health. Complex IS may also contain decision support tools such as Structured Decision Making to assess which cases to investigate, whether children are sufficiently safe to be left with parents during an investigation and levels of risk of harm at the conclusion of an investigation. Many fields within these forms of IS are mandatory and they must be completed before a case can proceed through the child-protection system, such as from investigation to intervention. Business rules implanted in the IS may control workflow and provide prompts and reminders about fields that must be completed or, for example, when case planning meetings and reports are due and court orders will expire. It is these types of IS that have been most heavily criticised across Europe and Australasia, as mentioned in the introduction. Recently, though, such systems have been developed further by the addition of a practice model, such as Looking After Children (LAC) and Signs of Safety (SoS). Barnardo’s Australia developed the Looking After Children Electronic System (LACES) for use by non-government agencies providing out-of-home care for children, with LAC embedded in it. This was evaluated from the perspective of front line practitioners in a small-scale study conducted by the author (Gillingham, 2016). Unusually at the time of the evaluation, practitioners could choose whether they used (or filled in) the forms associated with the various dimensions of well-being and development and most chose not to. The reasons they gave aligned with other contemporary research about IS, with a manager commenting that ‘many of the workers hate LACES as it takes up so much of their time’. One participant stated that ‘filling out forms does not help children at all’, with most of it being ‘irrelevant and a waste of time’. Additionally, they did not find LAC particularly useful. Since then, Barnardo’s Australia have released another version of the IS that has yet to be independently evaluated. In England, with the roll-out of SoS in ten local authorities, a new IS that incorporates the SoS tools and forms has been developed (SoS Newsletter, 2017). One of the problems identified by practitioners in these local authorities during the process of SoS implementation was that they could not record their work adequately in existing IS, using the SoS tools (Munro et al., 2016). Advantages The advantages of complex IS, especially those that incorporate a practice framework, have been articulated in the research as follows. Incorporating a practice framework into an IS means that all practitioners across a particular jurisdiction are using the same framework and their use of the IS provides continual reinforcement of the practice framework. It might also be a useful guide for new staff. Other agencies that interact with the statutory agency, such as early intervention family support services, can also be encouraged, over time, to use the same framework for articulating their concerns about a family or their assessment of a child’s situation. As one participant noted, ‘when two services are involved with the one family, we’re using the same language so the families then become familiar with those words’. Participants have also mentioned that incorporating a practice framework into an IS is one way of introducing evidence-based, or evidence-informed, practice to an agency. However, this may be contentious. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore the nuanced arguments of the pros and cons of evidence-based, or -informed, practice in social work, other than to state that claims that a practice framework is evidence-based need to be treated with some caution. There is a paucity of research that has evaluated the efficacy of practice frameworks (Bunn, 2013) and emerging research suggests that, even over a number of years, there may be no effect on outcomes for children (Salveron et al., 2015). Complex IS could make evaluative research much more feasible, as the IS would be able to capture detailed data about outcomes for children over time. However, as Jonson-Reid and Drake (2016) argue, there would need to be significant redesign of IS and changes in practice to capture specific data about child well-being. Disadvantages With increased complexity, there is, of course, the danger that past problems with IS, from the perspective of end users, might be replicated. Incorporating LAC into an IS, as mentioned above, still meant that practitioners had to fill in lengthy forms. For the participants, there was no advantage for them in using LACES (Gillingham, 2016). Collecting detailed information about children, their families and the casework process may well be necessary but there is still the problem of using practitioner time to enter these data. In situations where time for data entry has to compete with time for casework, practitioners become frustrated with having insufficient time for either and the data contained in an IS may be inaccurate or incomplete (Shaw et al., 2009). Missing data undermine the ability to produce accurate and detailed reports about service activity and outputs, which, as mentioned, is one of the potentially advantageous affordances of complex IS. As one participant mentioned, incorporating a practice framework into IS may also stifle professional creativity in terms of bringing different theoretical and practice approaches to bear on a complicated situation. Theoretically, repeated use of technology tends to ‘configure the user’ such that one way of thinking about or approaching a task, using an application, becomes the only way (Verbeek, 2006). In previous research about the use of risk-assessment tools, experienced practitioners raised concern that mandating the use of particular tools and embedding them in IS might undermine the professional development of new practitioners: ‘re SDM [Structured Decision Making]—good for inexperienced staff but it does not help them to develop analytical skills—just breeding workers who are good at ticking boxes’ (Gillingham, 2011, p. 417). Further research has shown that experienced practitioners prefer to have range of tools or frameworks at their disposal: ‘… we do have a lot of different tools, and there’s no one right way’ (Gillingham et al., 2017, p. 53). The challenge of dealing with complexity features throughout the work Erik Hollnagel, one of his main concerns being that ‘[u]nfortunately, the extensive use of computers has created an equally large number of possibilities for making simple tasks unnecessarily complex’ (Hollnagel and Woods, 2005, p. 37). Social work itself is complex and makes huge demands on individuals dealing with sometimes intractable problems (Sandfort, 2010). Introducing a complex IS adds to the cognitive work required of practitioners, as it creates a layer of complexity in itself (Hollnagel, 2012). Increased complexity, in the sense referred to by Hollnagel (2012), also relates to the sense of frustration experienced by practitioners when using IS (Wood, 2008) or, more mildly, puzzlement. As argued previously, effort may be required to reinterpret the complex world of service users’ lives for recording as data in a procedurally based IS (Gillingham, 2017). Designing for the complexity of the tasks that practitioners engage in should therefore aim to support rather than direct or prescribe general functions of coping (Hollnagel and Woods, 2005). Complex systems that require significant time and energy from and interaction with practitioners may also become what has been called the ‘single source of truth’ and assume a level of importance that is disproportionate to the main mission of the organisation. From the perspective of practitioners, one participant explained ‘demonstrating that you have done something [by entering data into an IS] is at least as important, if not more important …, as actually doing it’. Events and actions only exist if they are recorded in the IS and much of the casework process remains invisible. In part, the status of IS may be elevated because of the significant investments of time and money that complex IS demand of agencies. Lastly, there is the problem of cost. Complex IS might cost tens of millions of pounds to develop, licence and maintain, and this has to be set against the reality of austerity throughout much of Europe and the rest of the world. As managers in social welfare agencies struggle to continue to provide services and retain staff, justifying the expenditure of many millions for a new IS becomes increasingly difficult, especially to an audience of practitioners who have struggled through the past problems with older IS. Simple IS A simple IS is the opposite of a complex system and has been defined in the research as a digital space in which to record, organise and retrieve information about service users and service activity. One agency in the research provided a clear example of the simplified use and design of an IS as follows. The agency provides disability support services to people living in their own homes, primarily through practical support, home visiting and a clear mission to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to achieve what they define as goals in their lives. These goals may focus on education and training and employment or be more leisure-based. The agency was given a half-finished version of an IS and they did not have the financial resources to engage with the provider to develop it further. Access to the IS was only available to three team leaders and two administrative staff. When practitioners visited service users, they e-mailed a case note to their team leader and designated administrative worker. Within the case-note template, the practitioners were directed to include some assessment of the service user’s general living situation, highlighting any new problems that had arisen. They were also directed to comment on any progress towards or problems with the service user achieving their goals. Practitioners were encouraged to be succinct and direct in their case recording. On receipt of a case note, either the team leader or the administrative worker would enter it into the IS in the service user’s file. The team leader would then analyse the case note, extracting the section on progress towards goals for recording in another section of the file. Any problems arising would also receive the attention of the team leader. One of the rationales for this way of recording and processing case notes was that they wanted to emphasise the importance of setting and striving for goals in the interactions between caseworkers and service users. Advantages A key advantage of the simplified design and use of an IS was that practitioners did not spend any time interacting with it. Aside from their case notes, their administrative load was minimal and the emphasis within their day-to-day work was spending time and working with service users. From the team leaders’ perspective, data integrity was high, as they ensured that there were no missing case notes and that they were up-to-date. It was also easy for the team leaders to access information about service users and particularly their progress towards their goals, which made case planning much easier. To paraphrase Hollnagel and Woods (2005), their ability to monitor progress had been amplified. There was some flexibility to add new fields to the IS to record different data about service activity and service users but this functionality had not been used, as careful thought had already been put into what information the agency was required to report to the funding body. If, for example, there was a change in policy in the funding body that required new information about service users to be reported, such as more detailed information about ethnicity, this could be accommodated in the IS. Practitioners were not directed by a practice framework embedded in the IS, which may be a benefit for some and not for others. Their practice was defined and guided by the training they received from the agency and its overall mission and aims. They also had the flexibility to adapt and develop their practice in response to the individual needs and circumstances of service users and new research evidence about disability and rehabilitation. As stated, the agency had been given the IS at no cost. As Ince and Griffths (2011) have shown, though, it is not difficult to build simple IS using free software and some simple code. A simplified design would obviously cost far less than complex IS and there is less to go wrong and maintain. With this example, it was not just how the IS were designed, but also how they were used that is significant. They were used by a very limited number of people and so the problems created by ‘occasional users’ (Gillingham, 2014; Carrillo et al., 2017), such as poor data integrity, would not arise. Disadvantages A key disadvantage of simple IS is that there are limited data about service users and service activity. Only that which is essential for the purposes of accountability in terms of service delivery and which needs to be reported to the funding body is recorded, which restricts the ability for the data to be mined to discover new patterns in, for example, the interplay between levels of service delivery and the attainment of goals by service users. Collating only the bare minimum of data is contrary to a phrase repeated by an ICT professional at a different agency in meetings with managers and front line staff that ‘you can’t report on what you don’t record’. This phrase, as an ethos, came to dominate some discussions about how complex new IS in a particular agency should be. Simple IS also do not take advantage of new and emerging developments in IS, such as mobile connectivity using the internet and decision support systems. Compared to complex IS, simple IS, as used in the example given, provide managers with limited control over what practitioners do, how they do it and when. This is contrary to the development of complex IS, which have incorporated the key tenets of New Public Management, specifically audit, transparency, surveillance and control (Burton and van den Broek, 2009; Gillingham and Graham, 2016). With simple IS, the emphasis in service delivery is on professional rather than administrative accountability (Ponnert and Svensson, 2016). In relation to more complex IS, the accessibility of information by practitioners about service users is promoted as an advantage, especially when the IS can be accessed through the internet using mobile devices. Clearly this access was not available to practitioners in the example, but they could, of course, phone in to the office if they needed information, such as a phone number. A key question here is how much access front line practitioners need to IS and whether they find it useful. Remote and mobile access may also create the expectation that data should be entered more quickly by practitioners. One participant in an agency where remote and mobile access was available commented that some practitioners might be entering case notes from home in the evening but she does not, as she felt that there was a ‘need for some boundaries between work and home’. Lastly, there is the question of whether a simple IS design would scale up in a large organisation. In the example given, the agency was relatively small, with each team leader responsible for six to ten practitioners. The amount of information recorded about each client contact was also small compared to, for example, a comprehensive assessment of child and family functioning. However, it is not the amount of data that is important here. Complex IS usually provide much more structure for data, such as separate areas for different aspects of service delivery that should, at least in theory, make it easier to find particular information. In cases where there may be a number of domains for practitioners to deal with, such as courts and legal guardians, it may make sense to separate out data about these activities. This is perhaps where simple IS would fail to meet the needs of an agency and individual practitioners. Discussion and conclusion Social welfare agencies may have little or no choice about which IS they have to use, as a specific system may be mandated by the funding body. However, when choice is available, it has been demonstrated in this article that there may be an alternative to having to purchase an expensive complex system. Readers may detect some bias by the author in listing the advantages and disadvantages of either form of IS and no claim is made that the points mentioned are exhaustive or even that a choice has to be either/or one form or the other. Managers within social welfare agencies, in consultation with practitioners, need to decide on the level of functionality they require of IS, according to what services they deliver, how and their need to report to funding bodies. They also need to decide how much time and energy of front line practitioners they want to invest in an IS. One problem observed in this research is that agencies have been sold IS that either are not ‘fit for purpose’ or that have functionality that far exceeds the needs of an agency. Contrasting simple and complex forms of IS and exploring the advantages and disadvantages of both provides another way to think about what level of functionality is required, which might lead to clearer specifications from agencies to vendors. To use the analogy of choosing a car, if the main use of the car is transporting a small family around the suburbs, to school, shops, work and so on, it would be profligate to purchase a four-wheel-drive car bristling with the latest technology, such as hill descent and road surface detection. Of course, people buy cars for reasons other than functionality but, in a social welfare agency, the need for functionality balanced against cost should underpin decision making about IS. A final point to consider when assessing required levels of functionality in IS comes from Hollnagel and Woods (2005). They emphasise the need for clarity about how the implementation of any technological artefact will either make it possible to complete new tasks or amplify the ability of workers to complete existing tasks. As business scholars have noted in relation to IS, claims of ‘increased efficiency’ in an organisation are not only vague, but are extremely difficult to quantify (Irani, 2002). As observed in the research, technology vendors and IT specialists frequently refer to their product as the ‘solution’. Given the problems that the social welfare sector has had with IS, decision makers in the sector need to define much more clearly what problem they are intending to solve with the implementation of particular IS and how the IS will facilitate this. Funding This research was supported by a Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council (FT170100080). Conflict of interest statement. None declared. 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This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The British Journal of Social Work – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 29, 2018
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