Co-design gone wrong: FACS responds to union's fury over ChildStory 'catastrophe'

By Stephen Easton

February 23, 2018

The New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services says it is “absolutely confident” that its troubled ChildStory system is better than the system it replaces. The union, however, says the department and the minister are ignoring the seriousness of longstanding problems that threaten the ability of case workers to protect children.

In the latest in a string of furious public statements going back to October last year, shortly before the new system went live, the Public Service Association reports the details of a February 14 meeting with FACS secretary Michael Coutts-Trotter, in which he explained a six-point plan to get the project back on track, but did not satisfy all of its concerns.

“ChildStory replaces a dated system that was roundly criticised by the Wood Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW and the Ombudsman,” a FACS spokesperson told The Mandarin. The government responded to that inquiry 10 years ago.

The department says the transition to ChildStory has been “a complex process” in terms of data migration, which is often the case with attempts to update staggeringly large government databases, but claims “many of the issues” associated with that have now been addressed.

“The transition involved migrating 500 million lines of data, more than 20 years’ of information, from the old system,” the spokesperson said. “During that process, there have been isolated cases where problems have been identified and fixed.”

The PSA maintains the system is nothing short of a “catastrophe” but Coutts-Trotter rejected this characterisation, according to the union’s report, which includes member survey results indicating the widespread revolt that has also led to various lunchtime walk-out protests.

The secretary told the union he “owns” the “judgement call” to switch over to the new system in November but, while the PSA has been in a furious war of words with Coutts-Trotter over recent months, it still holds Minister Pru Goward “ultimately” responsible.

The union had strongly argued ChildStory was not ready and that protection of vulnerable children would be undermined by the switch-over, which was already delayed and way over budget, and urged Goward to push it back even further.

An October 20 statement explained various reasons why the PSA members felt the system was not fit for purpose, after initially being “excited” about what had been promised.

A November 7 meeting with the minister clearly didn’t go well and in follow-up statements just before Christmas — a busy time for child protection workers — the union sounded its loudest warning yet.

“The responsibility for any tragedy that may eventuate as a result of the introduction of Child Story must lay squarely with the Minister’s office and not caseworkers in the field,” said assistant general secretary Troy Wright, in another statement that argued the department was “celebrating ChildStory as a success” when it was anything but, in the eyes of the workers who would use it.

FACS did not respond to the claim that the system could cause a “tragedy” in its statement to The Mandarin.

The department enthusiastically and proudly promoted ChildStory last year,  including in several articles published by The Mandarin, particularly highlighting a co-design process that purportedly kept case management staff involved and valued their feedback. 

It did not say whether it now accepts there were deficiencies in this co-design process or ways it could have been more effective, or whether it would review this process to identify lessons it and other agencies could learn from the experience.

“FACS engaged closely with caseworkers during the design process,” the spokesperson said.

“In Release One, the design process delivered a number of features that caseworkers asked for.

“Caseworkers also asked for a timeline view of a child’s records, which is being bought forward from Release Two and will be available this month. In Release Two, other elements identified in the design process, such as mobile access to some records and information sharing with young people and carers, will be made available.”

The union, however, has previously accused the department’s communications staff of trying to create a false impression that staff are coping with the new system a lot better than they are.

“There is a real disconnect between the executive and reality our members are dealing with,” it argued in one strongly worded statement, which accused FACS leaders of deploying “PR spin” to counter their concerns:

“Your PSA has been told by members that ChildStory senior managers have been cold-calling caseworkers and cherry-picking and taking out of context what they are telling them about this deeply flawed system. The Department then uses this information as testimonials about how well they are coping with ChildStory.

“The Executive somehow thinks this is helping boost morale. What it is doing is adding to the already enormous stress felt by staff in trying to do their utmost to protect the vulnerable children and families they work with.”

There was apparently a moment in January when the PSA felt the department was starting to listen, when it met with ChildStory co-directors Lisa Alonso Love and Greg Wells. Union officials, however, demanded the secretary meet with them in person and were not impressed by Coutts-Trotter’s use of terms like “hunky-dory” and “holy moly” in a staff email.

“Child protection is serious business and such expressions trivialise the very real problems you are experiencing on a daily basis,” the February 8 union missive states. “The Secretary then went on to state we were either wrong or exaggerating the problems and things were being fixed in any case.”

The department spokesperson told The Mandarin “FACS appreciates that the change has caused frustration” and continues to assert it is listening to staff, responding to their feedback, and arranging training.

“We have heard what people have to say about ChildStory and we are responding to their concerns. Feedback from staff using ChildStory is being prioritised for weekly updates by the program team.

“Staff can expect to be fully supported through immersive training in the coming months as they develop confidence and proficiency in using ChildStory.”

The union warns it “will not back off until there is full acknowledgement of the problems and this mess is fixed” — and demanded that any performance management processes that are “a consequence of [staff members] not being able to do the same level of work since the implementation of ChildStory” cease immediately.

“The Secretary stated some staff need to be performance managed and he would not be reversing his position,” the union reports. “However, he is prepared to look at matters on a case-by-case basis.”

Related: Inside ChildStory: NSW dept aims high with crucial IT project

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