The objective is to build a portal that will allow people to use a common system across different Local Authorities, will support standardisation of information and will break the vendor lock-in created by existing proprietary technologies.
The project will leverage prior Discovery projects:
“Single View of a Child” delivered by Wigan Council
This project provided valuable insight into how more consistent and joined up data can realise tangible benefits. However, it also highlighted the challenges in achieving this goal when Local Authorities are using a plethora of existing systems that have inconsistent data and do not easily talk to each other.
Ealing Council’s work on the use of analytics and artificial intelligence in the writing of EHC Plans
This project looked at how more advanced technologies could be used to enhance the processes for developing EHC Plans. However, it also confirmed the same barrier to benefits realisation because there is no consistent platform or data across (or even within) LAs on which to base such advancement.
Warrington Borough Councils project to explore the Capita SEND portal
This project identified that the product (1) has limitations and cannot meet the full needs of the EHCP service, (2) does little to support standardisation of information and process, (3) LAs are left to design and implement their own processes and configurations and (4) it comes with commercial Terms and Conditions that absolves the supplier of most of their accountabilities, e.g. states “…does not warranty that the software will be error free”.
WBC’s analysis of systems and processes across LAs in the North West
This work explored the EHCP process, documents and systems used by 18 other LAs, such as Tameside, St Helens, Salford, Liverpool, Bolton, etc. It revealed that some are using a range of commercial digital solutions from LiquidLogic, Capita and iDox, others are using paper based manual systems system. There is a grey area where some LAs have been trying to roll-out a digital system and had to put it on hold due to issues, or are waiting to see how other LAs fare before going ahead.
These Discovery projects show a common theme: there is a lack of a consistent, affordable portal for EHCP development. This acts as a barrier to realising benefits such as Single View Of A Child and scalable use of AI and analytics. However it also means we are don’t have consistently used best-practice, we’re spending money repeatedly with suppliers and we’re asking people to interact with different systems and different processes depending on which LA they are working with.
The Social Care and Education services in Local Authorities are locked in a strangle-hold by a small number of niche technology providers. They sell solutions that are disproportionately expensive and often based on outdated products. Councils have not had the budget (and sometimes the skills) to build their own systems so they’ve had little option but to stay locked into the proprietary systems, with the other problems that entails:
· Contracts are weighted in favour of suppliers with terms like “we do not warranty this solution to be error-free” and leaving customers with no leverage if services are not fit for purpose.
· Suppliers focus most of their efforts on trying to make new sales and more income and little in comparison to fixing failing systems.
· Every small change seems to come with a cost. A thousand pound per manday is a typically benchmark for resources.
· Some suppliers seem to take little accountability for information protection, even when caused as a direct result of vulnerabilities in their software. The issue with the CTF function in the Capita SIMS system has been causing information breaches about children’s information for nearly two years now and is still not fixed.
There are further downsides:
· There is no agreed best-practices and LAs design and configure processes differently.
· End users are faced with a multitude of systems and even when the technology is the same, their implementation probably isn’t. A medical professional (especially a specialist who works with SEND cases) could work across hospitals in different towns. A foster carer could take children from different LAs. A school may admit children from out of borough. They could use LiquidLogic for some cases, for Capita others, iDox or Northgate for more, and very often paper based manual processes too.
· The lack of consistent data makes service performance difficult to understand.
· It is in the vendors’ interests to “help” LAs with their local implementations rather than have something consistent that could be implemented for less cost and time.
LAs might buy a core system for Education & Social Care but have to buy additional modules for the Parent Portal, Professional Portal, for analytics, etc. Then if you change your back-end system, you have to change all these other components too.
The key to breaking this deadlock is to deliver a solution based on technology affordable and re-usable. It should not be tied into expensive suppliers and their proprietary products.
There are over 400 LAs in the UK. An EHCP (SEND) portal for Professionals typically costs £40k (just for licencing, let alone implementation and running costs). Assuming all LAs would like a digital SEND portal if they could afford it, this equates to a potential market of circa £16m. Then probably another £16m for Parent portals. More money for multi-agency (MARAC) solutions.
It should be possible to build a first iteration of an operational SEND portal for less than £500k. It should be possible to support, maintain and evolve this for a cost of £250k. Using a 7 year system lifespan duration this equates to £2.25m compared to the potential £16m external expenditure.
Assuming a portal could be built and run for £1m per year (which is realistic) it deliver a 100% Return On Investment if taken up by just 50% of the UK LAs.
However, it delivers a far bigger benefit (as described in the Ealing Discovery work) in that it unlocks a pathway for high-quality consistent services, better information and decision making, better outcomes for children, etc.
As the products reaches a level of maturity and confidence, the benefits could be replicated by creating similar portals for multi-agency services, for parent portal, etc.
The full-scale of the situation is colossal. Projects for new Social Care / Education systems typically cost at least £3m and sometimes nearer to £5m (see Shropshire and Havering for recent examples). For a £3m project, about £2m of the money ends up in the pocket of the vendor. Over a similar 7 year system lifespan, this equates to a mammoth amount of £8bn, or £114m per year.
This project would create an organic route for disrupting that monopoly.
This project will overcome this by
- Building a portal for SEND applications, assessments, reviews and appeals
- Use platform-agnostic technology based on open-source products (Alfresco)
- Use a low-code environment to deliver at pace and minimise learning curves
- Leverage the knowledge from the four prior Discovery exercises as a foundation for what-good-looks-like
Undertake the entire project under the Government Digital Standards framework:
- Iterate development in sprints
- Engage real-end users from different persona types into the product development
- Use LA’s resources for product development, rather than external suppliers with their own agenda.
Critical discussion such as planning meetings and requirements will be conducted face-to-face. Where possible engagement with external stakeholders will be conducted in “home” environments, e.g. to engage with a group of teachers about the requirements and design, go out and do so at a school. Project members will engage with real people in real situations, not in a sterile project room. Video conferencing will be used to support virtual working.
A Daily Stand Up will be conducting including teleconference for anyone needing to join and not on site that day.
WBC will provide a project environment with the required tools, such as Kanban boards.
Delivery will be managed into time-boxed sprints with outcomes agreed by the team and signed up to. Working software will be the core measure of success along with approval of stakeholders that the design and outcome are fit-for-purpose. Quality and acceptance criteria for outcomes and products will be defined. Retrospectives will be held at least at the end of each sprint to review how the team are operating and what can be further evolved in the project style and team operation.
Microsoft Visio and PowerPoint will be used where relevant for initial capture of Wireframes (screen design) during User Story development. However, with the use of a Low-Code environment, an approach of direct design-and-build will be promoted.
Jira will be used for capture of requirements, managing development and management of test scripts. JMeter will be used to automate and speed up test management.
The project would look to the Local Digital Collaboration Unit for support ensuring project mobilisation:
· Facilitate and lead training on digital service delivery for the core project team
· Provide an extra “set of eyes” on the project with any advice on how the project could be refined during its execution. This could be in the form, for example, of a monthly check-in call for the team to describe the progress being made and the challenges being faced. The project culture will be to promote transparency and encourage inclusion.
Project team members from the various partner Local Authorities will be selected based on talent: those who have the motivation and potential to deliver great things – skills can be taught, attitude cannot.
The technology solution will be built on the Alfresco product; this meets the goals of being both open-source and low-code. It offers a wide suite of products such as Document Management, Process & Case Management, Collaboration, Search & Insight, GDPR compliance, etc, i.e. pretty much everything that might be needed as a suitable toolkit for this project. A freeware version will be used for build of the Alpha. A Beta version and LIVE production service would possibly be built on a commercial Platform-As-A-Service (PaaS) for Alfresco.
Alfresco is (a) viewed to be one of the leading products in its field by independent market analysts such as Gartner and (b) compliant to current standards such as Business Process Model And Notation (BPMN 2.0 compliant).
At the time of writing this report there were multiple suppliers registered on the Digital MarketPlace for commercial Alfresco hosting and services, e.g. Axes 12 Ltd, Kimcell, Zaizi Ltd, Leicestershire Health Informatics Service, enCircle Solutions Ltd. This all allow procurement of additional and specialist resources where needed but on a competitive basis and with a truly portable solution for the future (lift and shift, not lift then reengineer & migrate). Some external Alfresco expertise will be sourced to help get the project team into delivery most quickly, to build right first time and not via trial-and-error, and to do knowledge transfer to the internal team to help them become self-sufficient quickly.