Tea break

I recently had a meeting with some nice people from a local authority Children’s Services department. As is the custom, I was offered a cup of tea at the start of the meeting, which I gladly accepted. My hosts had run short of mugs, & it took some time for them to locate a spare one for me hidden in the back of a dusty cupboard. I was duly handed a nice hot cuppa, and as I was about to take my first swig I realised I had been given a ContactPoint mug. The memories, good and bad, came flooding back.

I was with ContactPoint man and boy. From the early days, when it was called Identification, Referral and Tracking (IRT) right through to its sudden, but in retrospect, inevitable end. I spent those years earnestly delivering presentations to sceptical social workers and others about this new national system information sharing system that was going to solve all their problems.

Of course, ContactPoint was controversial. I once tried to explain to my dad, over a quiet pint, what exactly it is I do for a living (it’s a conversation I’ve had numerous times over the years. I have given up trying). He was aghast. His fears about a 1984-style society were coming true. Not only was Big Brother taking over, his very own son was complicit. I had to change the subject, and talk about football instead.

Anyway, the years came and went. IRT became ISA (Information Sharing and Assessment), before finally reaching, with great fanfare, its final incarnation. As deployment grew nearer, the work grew more complex. There were multi-layered information sharing protocols to be drafted (“It’ll all end in tiers”, we used to quip); service directories to be compiled; communication strategies to be delivered. At the same time a plethora of other related initiatives sprang up: ICS; CAF; eCAF and so on. It sometimes felt like the whole world was turning into one giant Children’s Services project.

And then it all ended.

Looking back, I think I always had my doubts about ContactPoint. It was mightily ambitious, and behind the good intentions and assumed simplicity there were far too many complexities and questions. However, from my own experience I do know that in the short few months it was actually operational, it did real bring real benefits to some young people. Whether those benefits outweighed the “dis-benefits” (as we used to describe “disadvantages” in tortuous project-speak), I just don’t know.

Nowadays, I think it might have been better to turn the problem around and start with local solutions rather than a national one. It always amazed me, and still does, that local authorities can’t or won’t let their systems talk to each other. I was once commissioned to carry out an audit of systems being operated by a single Children’s Services department and found they had over a dozen externally supplied ones, in addition numerous ad hoc systems including spreadsheets, Access databases and card files (in 2010, no less).

The irony is, the more vulnerable the child, the more services they require, and thus, the greater the number of systems they appear on. These isolated databases are the embodiment of working in silos. They remind us that real joined-up delivery and partnership working still have a long way to go.


Posted Under: Public Sector, Thoughts

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