Local authorities have a three-month deadline to comply with new laws that aim to revolutionise the way information is held about ‘at-risk’ individuals. The improvements are deemed essential following the high profile, tragic abuse case of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié.

As part of the wider e-government agenda, local authorities must ensure that all new service user records are stored and can be retrieved electronically by October 2005. It is a major milestone for social care departments that will revolutionise the way social care records are managed and will be a turning point in the protection of vulnerable individuals such as children and the elderly.

The Electronic Social Care Record (ESCR) will make available core information on clients known to their departments. Through better practices in the management and availability of social care records, information on those at risk will be more accurate and allow those who have the power to intervene in ‘at-risk’ situations to prevent another tragedy, such as the high profile case of Victoria Climbié.

The Victoria Climbié case highlighted a lack of communication and visibility in managing social care records. The ESCR aims to improve communications and in doing so, free social worker time and provide better support to vulnerable families and individuals. Over time, the ESCR will reduce cases of abuse and drive improved practices and communication across social care departments.

In order to meet the ESCR, a joined-up approach between social care, health, education and other partner agencies must be achieved to transfer records electronically. The sensitive nature of the information involved means that social care departments have to adopt and be comfortable with the security of information with respect to the processes and technology. The ESCR for example will mean that social care personnel will not only have to appreciate the sensitivity of data but be confident in their use of such information in the new framework.

Local authorities must invoke strategies and cement the steps they need to take in order to establish an e-social care record system. Social care departments must take action. Although some are well on their way to achieving the deadline, many still have a great deal of work to do. But with so many other priorities, where should they start?

STEP 1 - Establish objectives
Viewing the ESCR in the context of current processes is daunting for social care. Departments that embrace the ESCR and determine key objectives are more likely to succeed. Beyond the initial scoping exercise, meeting the ESCR is a long-term process. A rushed approach will not gain the trust and commitment of the people involved. Equally, a change in culture and working practices will not happen overnight. All parties and stakeholders need to invest time to make the project successful. The ESCR proposes some radical new ways in the recording and management of data. It is important that parties are clear on how they move forward.

STEP 2 - Scope processes before implementing solutions
It is imperative that working scenarios and requirements are determined early on. And, as technology and processes change, there must be flexibility to develop these requirements. The ESCR involves a plethora of stakeholders. It is not a simple change that involves just the scanning and storing of documents. Data protection guidelines, business processes and working practices should lead authorities to make informed technological choices.

These are detailed requirements. Complex regulations need to be put alongside the processes to determine what the social care worker has to access and what the output is. Through detailed scoping, a specialist can address the different needs and responsibilities of social care and begin to build in specific features within the system.

STEP 3 - The corporate versus departmental approach
Social care departments need to be clear about the IT strategy being taken by the Local Authority as a whole. While all departments will be subject to a corporate IT policy, the nature and complexity of information involved in social care means they will have specialist IT requirements. The scope and limitations of a corporate approach therefore must be evaluated before embarking on the project.

A corporate route will offer the benefits of delivering IT through a single supplier, and resulting economies of scale. A consultant with the necessary expertise can deliver the relevant training, support and maintenance, and guarantee service level agreements. Progress can be achieved efficiently - there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

However, a departmental approach will maintain the autonomy for the social care department. Departments retain an element of control on who can access the data. Quite often a hybrid approach will be taken in order to reap the benefits of the corporate approach but have the flexibility to address specific social care needs.

STEP 4 - Construct a specific project team
Social care departments must establish a team that has a depth of expertise and knowledge. A project team should be constructed around multi-disciplines and an experienced project manager. It is vital that the team has the in-depth experience to understand the day-to-day requirements and cultural issues around change and technology.

The success of the project will be determined by the ability to win over users. This has to be balanced with the technical expertise. However, project success is more than just about putting the right people and skills in place. If it is to be successful in the long-term and receive user uptake there has to be actual users as part of the team. The outputs of the project should be based on user needs, not just on the technology available.

The wider success of a project will be influenced by a project sponsor with an active interest. A project sponsor can link together other departments and create a common end goal. Meeting the ESCR involves changes that are part of a wider context. It involves business process management, change management, and the uptake of new technologies and capabilities such as document management systems, or even digital pen and paper. A sponsor will be an important influence for both social care workers and the public.

STEP 5 - Work with a specialist consultancy
A specialist consultancy can work in partnership with social care departments to address the concerns and issues they face. A specialist will bring to the table other experiences and acquired knowledge to consult on government policy, technology and the political and economic implications. The specific needs of social care can then be supported in this context, particularly the essential changes to behaviours, skills and processes let alone technology.

For example, social care work involves complex working practices that are often conducted visiting clients and across multiple sites. A dedicated in-house resource may not have the expertise to bring all of this together. A specialist can support the in-house IT requirements but offer solutions to complex working scenarios based on their multiple experiences.

STEP 6 - Share best practice
The best result can be achieved if local authorities and social care departments share experiences. In doing so, people involved in social care can challenge the provider and reach the best end result. Through mature questioning, parties can understand the fears and provide solutions. Meeting the ESCR will be an evolving process. It is not a short-term fix. Social care departments can share experiences in how to manage and store documents. It is as much about understanding the business processes and technologies that are available as about the cost and practicality of the solution.

Meeting the ESCR is a daunting prospect for social care departments. It is important that one step is taken at a time, and that departments draw upon the resource and expertise that is available to them. Through making incremental steps, an ESCR system can begin to be achieved, and more importantly sustained, to meet the deadline if not by October, by the beginning of 2006. Most importantly, cases such as Victoria Climbié will be made far less likely, and vulnerable individuals, including children will benefit from a superior support infrastructure that revolutionises child protection.

Meeting the electronic social care record deadline: The steps