User need and integrated, intuitive systems: How Newham is digitising social care

Newham’s digital delivery could show the way for other councils to make social services more efficient. Gill Hitchcock finds out why.

Newham has been picked as an example of good digital practice by Socitm – Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Directors of social services are warning that councils, already running out of “efficiencies”, will have to make a further £371m cut to their services this financial year.

Councils are dealing with this differently, but for Newham the austerity agenda kicked off by the 2010 spending review was a catalyst for a major rethink of service delivery.

It was then that the East London borough council realised that it had made many of its residents too dependent, says chief information officer Geoff Connell.

“We wanted them to be independent and resilient and function as a community,” he says. “And at the same time we introduced customer services technologies that would enable people to self-serve and to help each other online.”

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This summer, the society of IT managers Socitm published the first in a series of briefings about promoting online services.

It says that, when done well, online self-service for social care can deliver a diverse range of positive benefits.

These include improved outcomes for service users and carers, better management of demand, better quality interactions with council services and potential cost efficiencies in meeting the capacity challenge. And it cited Newham as an example of good practice.

So how is the borough, which provides social care services to about 4,200 long-term clients, exploiting digital technology?

Grainne Siggins, Newham’s director for adult social services, says the council continually reviews how it provides social services support, and how it makes the best possible use of the latest technology.

For instance, she says, four years ago it developed an online one-stop information portal called the Information Advice and Guidance website, which now has an average of 7,000 visits per month.

“This provides a wide range of information and support about different social care and health services to enable customers, as well as their friends and families, to make an informed decision about their appropriate care and support,” Siggins says.

“It includes a directory of services, developed in partnership with Newham clinical commissioning group, with information on both NHS and council commissioned support, and those provided by social care organisations and voluntary groups.”

And the website also appears to be a valuable source of information for staff, helping them develop and assess the needs of citizens. Nearly 10% of visits to the site each month are made by Newham employees.

Easy and intuitive systems

Austerity drove Newham to create a single real-time view of social services data.

It was no easy feat to draw information from 24 disparate systems, but Connell says it has paid off.

“Rather than people having to go into all those different systems, which is very difficult and time consuming, you have a single screen view of everything we know about an individual and their family, and even people they share a house with.”

Now the council is looking further afield for technology that will integrate health and social care and improve the mobility of staff and self-service.

Connell says that the council specified what its social care system should look like, how it needed to work differently and how it had to integrate with health.

The new system, which the council has been using for the best part of two years, is called Azeus and was developed by a company in Hong Kong. The council hopes it will go live in the next couple of months.

“We think this is a system for the future,” says Connell.

“This is completely different in terms of the user interface, and it runs on iPads and tablets. Social care workers are saying, ‘It’s easy and intuitive to use,’ – and you don’t’ hear that very often. So I’m really excited about this.”

As well as frontline care workers and the administrative staff that support them, the new system will also be used by citizens through self-service portals. For instance, it will give the families of vulnerable adults access to the full range of services available in the area.

Putting users first

Siggins says the council is proactive in ensuring that residents and key partners, such as the Newham Clinical Commissioning Group and voluntary groups, are aware of the council’s online services and what information they can find there.

Newham is using social media, stalls at health events and workshops for residents in community venues across the borough to get the message out. And it’s also listening to what citizens think of the service.

“In the early days we worked on the basis that our staff are our residents too, so we tested IT mainly with staff,” says Connell. “But what we are doing now is going back to basics and working with residents’ groups to assess what the user journey is.”

He adds that technology has moved on so much, allowing them to generate even more information about how people use the service.

“We have the ability to use eye-scanning equipment so you can see exactly where people are looking on the screen, and we can try to make sure that the right information is in the right place,” Connell says.

“Another big plan is for the minimum viable product approach: getting something useful functioning as quickly as you can and then iterating it, improving it, based upon feedback.”

Evaluating the system

One of the ways Newham will measure the success of the Azeus system is how much time frontline social services staff spend out of the office with clients. It will allow them to input new data without returning to base. And should also mean they can work offline and make the update as soon as a wireless signal is available.

It’s not hard to see why Newham was highlighted by Socitm. Some 85% of all its transactions with the public are online self-service, with more than 90% of the borough’s residential households having at least one registration on its portal. And its social services data warehouse has more than 200 users at any given time.

But Connell says that, although Newham has undertaken lot of analyses of the digital skills of residents, it probably hasn’t done enough to understand the digital needs of its own staff.

“The more our staff have got digital skills, the better they can use the systems and the more they have got the opportunities and ability to reimagine the way they deliver services.”


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