The government’s IT solution for children’s services could put at risk the children it is designed to help, according to researchers.

A study to be published early next year in the British Journal for Social Work claims the Integrated Children’s System has the potential to undermine good social work practice.

Academics from the universities of Nottingham, Lancaster, Cardiff and Huddersfield conducted a two year study of frontline children’s services in five local authorities in England and Wales.

They claim the ICS means social work staff have to spend more and more time inputting data into overly complex assessment forms and that the pressure to take short-cuts to meet inflexible deadlines creates “latent conditions for error.”

The researchers said these might have limited adverse affects where staffing levels were good but that they could become increasingly dangerous if there were high referral rates, inexperienced staff, high staff turnover or sickness.

David Wastell, Professor of Information Systems at The University of Nottingham said: “ICS is a crude technological attempt to transform social work into a bureaucratic practice to be governed by formally defined procedures, involving sequences of tasks to be accomplished within strict deadlines.”

The study looked at five local authority areas: a London borough, a county council, a metropolitan borough in the North of England, a unitary authority and a Welsh rural authority. Researchers spent around 240 days observing and analysing everyday practice, ran ten focus groups and carried out 60 formal interviews.

Professor Wastell said: “As far as I can see, the development of ICS has been driven from the top down, by central government, with minimal design input from the social work profession, front-line practice in particular.

"The architects of ICS seem to have been convinced that it was the correct approach and pressed ahead regardless of warning signals from pilot trials.”

The researchers said they were not arguing for a wholesale abandonment of the new technology but that the design of any system should be based on a thorough understanding of the needs of staff and their working practices.