Exploring digital solutions to provide enhanced scheduling and thorough reporting for court mandated supervised contact with children
During the ideation stage of the discovery process, we formed the following statements:
- How might we improve the security of data, to limit the risk of data loss, so that service users are not at risk of data breaches?
- How might we reduce the amount of manual processing required to arrange contact, so that the volume of administrative errors are decreased, and the children’s visits are not affected as a consequence.
- How might we reduce the time and complexity involved in scheduling contact, so that the service has an increased officer capacity to facilitate contact visits to children and their families?
- How might we improve the quality of reporting in order to aid service managers to make continuous service improvement, through having access to accurate information that allow them to make informed decisions?
- How might we decrease the cost of administering contact, so that funds can be redistributed to support the enhancement of venue facilities, to improve the experience for children and their relatives?
- How might we limit Co-ordinator and Contact Supervisor confusion when viewing the contact schedule, so their pain and frustration is reduced when organising their working day?
It was evident from the insights uncovered during the discovery phase that the most effective way to solve the majority of the hypotheses is to digitise the process from end to end, with a view of capturing valuable reporting metrics, which allow the service to plan their long-term improvement.
Therefore we are looking to develop a standardised service solution that can be shared across many local authorities through using shareable code. We will endeavour to build the prototype with scalability and flexibility in mind so that it can be easily adopted by other authorities.
- We will design a graphical user interface (GUI) which will allow Co-ordinators to input contact data securely, which will be stored in a database to minimise the risk of data loss or corruption. As a result this will then increase the resilience within the service but most importantly protect the data of service users.
- Working alongside our effective in-house development team, we will then develop functionality that allows for complex and irregular appointment recurrences to be actioned and displayed within a schedule, which can then be assigned to specific Contact Supervisors as part of their caseload.
- The system will be designed intuitively and use logic to identify which Contact Supervisor should be responsible for that contact, based on: their availability, clashes with existing appointments and current caseload. This functionality will enable a significant time saving to Co-ordinators when trying to determine the best suited Supervisor to fulfil the new contact referral.
- Building the solution with the view of obtaining valuable reporting metrics will deliver significant insight to the service, and allow them to make more informed decisions when strategically planning within the service. It will also aid them in fulfilling their statutory obligations of providing visitation reports to the court.
- Through recording appointment attendance within the platform, it enables clear metrics to be provided to the court about unattended visits and reasoning behind this. But also, it provides significant insight regarding how many appointments have been missed each year.
- Reporting metrics on staff capacity and number of visits conducted each month allows the service to obtain a far greater insight into their resourcing, and therefore can work to optimise the efficiency of contact supervision.
- We will work alongside our internal UX designer to make the complex views of the schedule more user friendly. This will limit confusion and help turn the schedule into a valuable tool and a key reference point for the Contact Supervision Team. Inclusion of a filterable schedule with various views would mean Contact Supervisors are able to discard the scheduling information that is not applicable to their caseload. Additionally, filtering functionality would enable the Contact Co-ordinators to see issues, such as possible clashes, or appointments which will be unfulfilled due to sickness or annual leave. As co-ordinators would be aware of these concerns early, it means preventative measures can be put in place to minimise the number of cancelled or missed appointments.
Further Research Requirements:
- Further research is required around the referral stage, as this is handled by the Social Work team who directly feed into the courts. Their referral process could be encompassed as part of this solution; as such further research is required.
- Technological research is required for the complexity of the solution, such as schedule filterability and the algorithm required to establish the best fit for each appointment.
- Research will be required into the technological requirements of each partner, as we will all use different networks and therefore have differing IT restrictions and limitations, meaning the solution we develop will need to be usable on the all Local Authority networks. By determining exactly what is required for the solution to work effectively, we can then share this information publically so that other organisations that are eager to adopt this solution are aware of the prerequisites.
Partner wide development and testing:
- We are open to conducting show & tells, both in person and via virtual methods. This enables partners to share thoughts and ideas continually and ensure we are sharing knowledge and learnings throughout the process. This is particularly valuable during testing as it means all partners can test rigorously, helping to highlight any bugs or process issues which the development team were unaware of.
- Video presentations are also another way to visually reflect on the progress made during each sprint. It allows partners to understand the way in which the solution is being developed.
- Published prototypes will allow Contact Supervisors and Co-ordinators to conduct usability tests, to ensure the GUI does not cause confusion or human error when using the system. Usability testing feedback can then be gathered and fed back during user research sessions which will take place throughout the project.
The independent discovery phase undertaken by Northamptonshire County Council’s digital team (known as LGSS Digital), established that there was a lot of pain within the Children’s Service when trying to arrange court mandated contact between children in care and their family members/guardians. The current process is almost entirely manual and requires the use of a master excel spreadsheet stored on SharePoint, which if corrupted could lead to huge data loss as it is not backed up. There are also risks that other SharePoint users may overwrite appointments in error, creating discrepancies in the spreadsheet and resulting in children not receiving the contact with their families ordered though court.
The process of arranging contact is extremely time-consuming, as the contact information needs to be searched for via an email inbox, which is used by multiple employees meaning referrals are at risk of being lost or deleted in error.
Contact co-ordinators spend a huge amount of time checking Contact Supervisors calendars against the master spreadsheet to determine who is best suited to take on the supervision of new contacts. They need to consider annual leave, contacts currently in progress, supervisor working pattern and cover for colleagues etc. This process is incredibly time consuming as court mandated contact arrangements are highly complex, due to appointment frequency and the varying patterns, making it exceptionally challenging to establish availability.
Due to this manual process, it means that reporting and metrics are almost non-existent. This means the service are unable to establish how much contact they provide, the cancellation rate, the capacity of staff and essential service benchmarking metrics. In order to obtain this reporting data, it takes a Contact Co-ordinator 37 hours (a full working week) to calculate. This is done through manually referring to the spreadsheet and taking a tally. This method is highly inefficient, costly and open to a huge margin of error. Therefore there service has access to no truly accurate data, making it hard to make informed decisions which could help to bring about change and efficiency to the service.
The high level of inefficiency involved in this process led to NCC reaching out to numerous other local authorities such as Leicester City Council, Milton Keynes Council, and Essex County Council to understand alternative ways to handle this process. However, during each of these visits, it was apparent that each authority was working in a similar way, which involved a high level of manual processing. North East Lincolnshire Council had experienced a small amount of success though using Outlook calendars and Microsoft Exchange; however this does not provide thorough reporting and doesn’t really providing sufficient data protection measures which are key drivers in the project.
Changed hypotheses and assumptions:
During the discovery phase it was evident that we had underestimated the complexity of the relationships involved in scheduling contact, which meant we had to spend time giving this far more consideration, than we had anticipated initially. Scheduled contact can be extremely complex, due to a variety of factors such as:
- The household dynamics – for example, do parents reside together or has the court enforced that contact must be conducted separately. If parents have multiple offspring, does the contact take place as a single family unit or should contact be arranged individually with each child? If a child is part of a blended family unit, the inclusion of step-parents and step-siblings should be also considered.
- Have the court extended the contact to grandparents or other relatives? etc.
As household arrangements are dynamics and extremely varied, it means that scheduling these contacts can incredibly time consuming. We had also misjudged the recurrence and contact pattern enforced though the courts. We made the assumption that contact pattern would be relatively simplistic and occur on a weekly basis, but it is far more complex. For example, recurrence may be every 3rd Thursday of the month as well as every Monday on a fortnightly basis. Not only is this complex to schedule manually, it is also difficult for attendees to be clear on when they are expected to attend contact. This may in part result in missed appointments, thus having detrimental impacts on children in care, as they are let down by their families not showing up.
Furthermore, it was assumed that contact took place in consistent venues (in dedicated building assigned to the supervision of contact) and that Co-ordinators had access to a venue booking system to support the scheduling of contact. However, as there is a lack of facility provisions countywide, the venues used are shared across multiple organisations, meaning Co-ordinators need to contact venues directly to confirm room availability for appointments, which is an additional step in the arrangement of contact.
User Research and opportunities to improve the customer journey:
Having done an extensive amount of shadowing with Contact Co-ordinators, it is evident that the manual nature of scheduling contact causes a lot of pain. This is a result of the master spreadsheet being incredibly complex causing a tremendous amount of confusion. As availability data is not obtainable, trying to establish the capacity of contact supervisors can incredibly laborious, this is extremely frustrating for the Co-ordination Team. However, through implementing an algorithm that provides insight into capacity and who is best suited to conduct new contacts, it will dramatically reduce time and the subsequent frustration of co-ordinators. Furthermore, though engaging with a UX officer, we will be able to design the solution in a way that minimises the complexity and confusion faced.
When interviewing Contact Supervisors it was also highlighted that they found it challenging and overwhelming to determine their workload from the spreadsheet. Therefore to improve this, a filterable schedule which allows supervisors to only see casework associated would considerably improve their user experience.
When conducting a stakeholder workshop, it was apparent that the lack of data made it difficult to manage the service as efficiencies could not be determined, consequently making it hard to drive change or bring improvement because there is no data to benchmark against. As it is so hard to determine staff capacity, it also means the service cannot establish if they are understaffed or if performance of employees should be challenged. This directly affects the children required to attend supervised contact as the service is unaware of how to optimise its resources.
Indirect savings will definitely be made, as the reporting information that will be delivered from the solution, will allow the service to make accurate decisions about the strategic improvement and delivery of the service. Furthermore, the time saved by not manually allocating contact can then be spent providing more hours of contact each week, helping make the service be more efficient and enable them to support more children across the county. In essence, it would mean that the size of the contact co-ordination team is reduced and their time can be solely dedicated to providing contact.
A social benefit on a county level is that the social workers, who cover supervised contact to meet service demand, will no longer be required to, meaning their skill set can be used to enhance other areas of the Children’s service. This will help to bring about real value to the lives of young people across all partner counties.
NHS England conduct thorough reporting in regards to appointments being missed. As a result of recording this business information, they can calculate the cost to the organisation as a result, and therefore make strategic plans accordingly. This highlights how vital it is for the service to be able to report on these metrics, so that the service can make improvements to ensure that cared for children are able to see their families. https://www.england.nhs.uk/2019/01/missed-gp-appointments-costing-nhs-millions/
Estimate the cost of a beta:
Working collaboratively with project partners, we will look to obtain standardised metrics to measure the current level of impact within each authority’s children’s service. We will consider at a minimum: cost analysis, cost per transaction, digital uptake, lead time and user satisfaction. This will really help us to determine the value our prototype brings within each sprint, and then at the end of the alpha phase. These figures than then be used to indicate the benefits of a beta and estimate the value further development work can bring.
In support of the estimation of cost, time spent on the project will be recorded using a tool called Harvest. This allows you to track time and the associated cost of the time, which therefore can be used as a guide to estimate the cost of a beta phase.
Tools to assist the management of the project:
LGSS is a shared service organisation with three primary partners; we are therefore familiar with working with colleagues and partners on various sites. We are acquainted with the tools best suited for this. There are a number of online tools which we wish to utilise to support the success of the project.
For communication we will use:
- Local Gov Digital Slack – for instant communication and networking with other authorities
- Email – to keep a record of formally agreed decisions
- Whereby – for video conferencing and deeper discussion
- Less frequent face to face meetings – to collaborate and run workshops and solution ideation sessions
- Blogging using WeekNotes or Pipeline – allowing us to share our experiences publically for other members of local government to engage with us or adopt elements of the approach we will follow throughout the alpha phase.
For project management / tracking progress we will use:
- Trello – to create a project backlog and management the steps involved during each stage of the prototype production and testing
- GitHub – To share any code, documentation as a result of any prototyped ideas, to create open, reusable assets or software.
- Harvest – To track the time and cost spend on the project, to provide an insight into the true cost of the project.
- Huddle – a document collaboration and sharing space.
- Miro Board – For virtual workshops and a place to collect insights and ideas.
We are dedicated to working in a transparent and open away, we have an existing blog section as part of corporate site. We use this area to share thought provoking messages and insights we have as we work through our agile projects. www.lgss-digital.co.uk/blog
The product owner will manage the relationship with the other service leads, to ensure they are in agreement with each decision during the project. Their input will then be voiced through the product owner during sprint planning meetings and outcomes will be fed back to them.
Communication channels will be kept open via the aforementioned tools. Therefore any stakeholder is able to engage in the project through their preferred method of communication. From previous experience, we have found that on projects that involve a large number of stakeholders from a range of organisations/authorities, regularly scheduled meets are the best way to keep the momentum going and to keep them engaged with the progress made during each sprint.
To keep more active project members in the loop, they will be asked to join the daily scrum call, which will be run by the scrum master running the project. This agile ceremony is a highly effective way to ensure everyone is making sufficient progress on the project.
Despite LGSS Digital having attended multiple GDS courses and work in an environment where we actively practice the agile methodology, we may need to conduct some training session for our project partners on the project management style, as well as the user-centred design which we centre our work around. Time could also be allocated to send partners on GDS courses such as Agile Awareness, on User Centred Design which employees within LGSS Digital have attended previously.
Although we hope to develop our solution in-house making use of the talent and skills available within our team, we cannot rule out the chance that we may need assistance accessing the open market to procure a special supplier as we proceed through the alpha phase.