Rhetoric into action: digital pioneering ChildStory starts rollout

By Stephen Easton

Friday June 17, 2016

ChildStory, the ambitious IT project behind major reform of the New South Wales child protection framework, is beginning to make its impressive design concepts and early prototypes a reality.

This week marked the end of an “intense, rewarding and exciting” 18-month process that involved coming up with a set of requirements for the new system, design, prototyping and procurement, the project team explains in a blog post about the deployment phase, an iterative process expected to run until midway through next year:

“We’ll be building the solution in modules – from Intake to Leaving Care. This means that our designers, business analysts, subject matter experts and programmers will work together in small teams over short periods to build pieces of what will be the final ChildStory platform.

“Working like this means that we can rapidly develop prototypes that we can share with users from across the department and the child protection sector to get feedback and generate better ideas. This information can be fed back to our designers and programmers to improve the finished product in real time.”

The ChildStory project has attracted a reasonable degree of attention already within Australia and abroad, and co-directors Lisa Alonso Love and Greg Wells told The Mandarin they are extremely confident that it will live up to expectations as it moves into deployment.

The Department of Family and Community Services project leaders say working with a gaggle of technology firms over the past few months on a planning study, which produced the implementation plan they will now put into action, has helped bring a diverse team together. Wells feels like they’ve achieved a lot in a fairly short period.

“… part is a contracting system, and part of it is about allowing people to work together on technology.”

“The actual selection of the technology has been very short — comprehensive and targeted — but a very quick process,” he said. “The time before procurement was spent on designing what we wanted to do, understanding how technology could support practice, and keeping families involved.”

Children, family members and social workers involved with the system have been involved from the start and will continue to be informed of progress along the way through the project website.

“We want them to know what’s coming; we’ve worked hard to engage them so we want to keep them engaged throughout it,” said Alonso Love. Case workers will also stay closely involved in testing the products they will eventually use. “We’ve had some case workers out yesterday looking at design of how the console might look, for example, so it’s every week that those people are involved,” she adds.

Needs first, technology second

Wells says the project should be seen as “much more” than simply a new case management system. “It’s a way to collaborate with our partners,” he said.

“The premise of this was we always get involved too late and then it’s too hard and too expensive to make a difference. So just doing the case management system, just that technology, doesn’t change anything.”

He hopes it will build and strengthen partnerships across health, education and with non-government partners as well as better relationships between case workers, kids and families when it comes into use next year. “That’s when it really starts to come together and become a child’s story.”

Alsonso Love explained how the project, which exemplifies a real effort to apply all the latest thinking about how government agencies should work in the digital age, differs from the traditional approach of essentially purchasing technology and adapting practice around it.

“There was a very different approach to procurement; we actually put aside the time to do the design, rather than just saying we wanted a case management system and doing a normal procurement process,” she said.

“And part of that is a case management system, part is a contracting system, and part of it is about allowing people to work together on technology.

It’s not to replace face-to-face meetings and phone calls with an impersonal computerised system, she says, but to enable quicker and easier information sharing keeping all stakeholders in the loop, and to save time spent on activities like typing up case notes, of course. The key question was: “What it is that these children and families need for us to do our jobs better?”

“That’s the real difference: not trying to lock ourselves into ‘we need this kind of technology’,” Alonso Love said.

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