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Inside ChildStory: NSW dept aims high with crucial IT project

The reform of the New South Wales child protection system came with $100 million for new IT systems, and the public servants running the project are doing things differently this time around.

Underpinned by a series of legislative changes last year, the $500 million Safe Home for Life re-design ostensibly aims for a “less legalistic [and] process driven” framework by focusing on earlier intervention to hopefully keep more children from going into statutory care, as well as providing more permanent homes for those who do.

Lisa Alonso-Love
Lisa Alonso Love

The Department of Family and Community Services’ four-year ChildStory IT project will be crucial if it’s to deliver on the third tenet: “a modern, responsive and child-focused system”. With a modular approach, it aims to develop a set of separate digital tools designed to meet specific user needs, based around an idea of what children and families experience in the system.

The public servants in charge are trying to adhere to the new digital paradigm we hear so much about. They’re taking an iterative approach to creating useful applications that meet genuine user needs, in an agile, highly collaborative work environment. The ChildStory website explains:

“Our mission is to revolutionise the IT systems case workers use. These IT systems need to do more than create reports; they must allow FACS, families and our partners to build a narrative about a child.”

[pullquote] “We’ve deliberately put people together who would not traditionally work together, or wouldn’t do things the same way.” [/pullquote]

Unusually, there are two directors in charge: child protection head Lisa Alonso Love and former NSW Health chief information officer Greg Wells, who both spoke to The Mandarin about the novel project, just over one year in.

Wells says one challenge has been getting the team working in a way that is completely foreign to the department, and keeping it going in the right direction. “We have a leadership team but not siloed, hierarchical, traditional structures and everything, and it takes the team a while to get their head around that way of working,” he said. “It’s a constant challenge.”

Alonso Love says they interviewed for particular skills and personalities they hoped would bring challenging ideas and build a healthy creative tension. “We’ve deliberately put people together who would not traditionally work together, or wouldn’t do things the same way,” she explained. “But you can’t throw people together like that and let them go, you have to be really heavily involved in managing that dynamic. And to their absolute credit, they have worked very well together.”

People before technology

The department knew it needed to find innovative ways to provide better services and also needed to improve its ageing IT systems, which are pretty basic and not so helpful to caseworkers.

Greg Wells
Greg Wells

“Look, I think it was pretty obvious early on that if we just looked at technology and replaced the stuff we have, we weren’t going to make an impact,” explained Wells. “It was pretty clear that if we just replaced our core case management system there was no way — look, it would be a bit nicer to use for sure, but in two or three years we’d be in exactly the same spot; we wouldn’t actually have influenced anything.”

Importantly, the initial consultation process involved getting input from young adults who have been through the child protection system and parents whose children have been removed.

“We’ve also employed a young person who has been in foster care part time on the team to work with our business analysts, project managers and developers, so that they have the opportunity to talk to someone that’s been through that experience,” Alonso Love told The Mandarin. “Now, he obviously doesn’t speak for every kid that’s ever been in care, but it helps us to remain focused and understand what that experience is like.”

FACS staff, external partners, the general public and relevant staff at other NSW agencies like Health, Justice and Education got a say too. The project started with a bang: a two-day brainstorming workshop in October last year with caseworkers and other professionals, who came up with eight priority projects they felt would be of most help. An ongoing program of workshops and events in the various regional districts keeps these staff and stakeholders involved with the iterative design process.

“We had the experience of saying what we thought a product probably should include, from a technical point of view and a user point of view, but when you take those ideas out and you workshop them with a range of people who are on the ground right now doing the work, or who have done it in the past, those ideas get challenged and they get refined,” explained Alonso Love.

“And sometimes, you end up realising that if you’d just gone down one track, which was a good idea to start with, you would’ve lost a whole lot of things, so you need that challenge to your own ideas.

“It does stretch you. It really helps you to think beyond a solution that you might have sitting in front of you, both from the point of view of talking to caseworkers as well as the market research we’ve done, so having those things come together helps you to think, ‘What is possible? What’s different to what we currently have that could work better?'”

Countering the cynics

Cynicism naturally follows any proclamation of pending transformative change, particularly big, expensive ICT projects. Bringing everyone along for the ride is always difficult, and in child protection there are a lot of people to bring. Alonso Love says the ChildStory team has defined 44 different “personas” to describe various actors in the system.

[pullquote] “Permission to try and fail and keep doing it that way is something that they’ve been explicit in their support of since the start — we couldn’t have done this without that.” [/pullquote]

She and Wells both point out that while it primarily leads to better solutions, co-design with stakeholders also helps build the trust in the overall exercise that is vital to its success. Support is the number one ingredient in successful innovation, says Wells:

“Some of the deputy secretaries are giving us the permission to try this stuff and even when things don’t go so well — and there’s a few little things that haven’t gone so well — the permission to try and fail and keep doing it that way is something that they’ve been explicit in their support of since the start, and we couldn’t have done this without that.”

The first big workshop was a way to “jolt” the organisation, and really send a message to everyone that this was a genuine effort to improve things, he adds. Prototypes were quickly developed for some of the priority projects, which were then tested with users and refined. This helped build some enthusiasm by showing that the discussions were leading somewhere.

“People need to see something that you deliver,” said Alonso Love. “You need to do that regularly so that so that you continue to build the trust and have the engagement, because if you lose the engagement you lose all the input that you need, so you have to be able to deliver things regularly.”

Wells adds: “It helps you learn about how to implement the bigger stuff later — there is still a bit to go — but I think the surprise has been there’s still a lot of people that think if you’re doing ‘little’ things you’re not doing the real program.

“And I think if you look at things like Patchwork, that’s a very small, light tool. It’s pretty inexpensive, comparatively, but it’s going to have a very large impact.”

Patchwork simply lists all the agencies that are involved in a particular case, and who to contact, and is being rolled out to pilot sites already.

Another box in the modern, agile digital transformation checklist that ChildStory ticks is an attempt to provide the maximum transparency into the project, much like the new Digital Transformation Office is trying to do. ChildStory’s blog promises to report “what tools are being developed, who is testing them, what they think about them and what you can expect into the future”. The site explains:

“It has been developed for our staff, our government and non-government partners; people who work with children and families to keep children safe; vendors who want to know what we are up to; and others who are interested in the way IT systems can be designed, prototyped and built to make real differences in supporting children, young people and their families.”

No formal approval was sought to be so open about every step of the project, says Wells. “We knew we needed it. We knew that’s what the industry wanted, so we sort of just did it and now everyone thinks it’s great. That transparency’s been a really important thing.”

Going to market

A recent milestone for ChildStory was the closing date for tenders from technology vendors in a market process which was “heavily informed” by the research, user-centred design work and prototyping of preceding months, according to Wells.

“So far we’re happy with how it’s come back,” he said. “The design and the way we approached it has led to a market response that is much better than a lot that I’ve been involved in, because they were so well informed about what we wanted.

“We were very transparent. We briefed them two or three times before there was any formal market process and I think that helped them prototype their own solutions and see how they could apply their solutions to [a working model] for a change rather than us just throwing them spread sheets and saying, ‘Good luck.'”

Full-length videos of a pre-tender market briefing in May and another subsequent market briefing session in June are available online.

There are 14 ChildStory tools listed on the website that are in various stages of development, according to Wells. “We paper-prototyped everything to begin with and then we got to the point where we said, ‘OK that’s good enough to even turn it into a clickable bit of technology,” he explained.

“So for pretty much all of the top ideas we did that, and then the really good ones, we actually went and built.

Resource Management Dashboard was one we built and some of the others we at least got to a point of making them quite usable enough to test in the field and get ideas.

“Then we got to a decision point about what we should build now versus what should we put in the tender. And I think we’ll continue to do that. Even when we’ve bought our systems, we’ll still continue to prototype really high impact things, so that will be ongoing throughout the process.”

Those 14 tools were developed based around “the child journey“, a generic story about  that came out of the various workshops and consultations. It may sound obvious to just focus on the children and parents and other people caught up in the child protection system — and that’s what caseworkers do — but as Alonso Love explains:

“Traditionally, from the point of view of people that are introducing, particularly technology but also some other big projects and programs, you can get caught up in what it looks like from a system point of view, and what the technology should look like, how it should operate, and what are the things that people need to comply with.

“It can be a really compliance-driven process doing that work, and that’s not to say that people don’t think about the children and families, but you have to be really conscious and we have to continually remind yourself and our team about the need to keep those children at the centre of it.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.