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Better Data on Children In Care: Building a Common Approach

Six weeks ago, Wigan, Stockport, Manchester, GMCA, MHCLG and not-for-profit Social Finance kicked off a 3-month discovery project. A discovery project aims to really understand what people need, so if we later want to build something, we know how to make it really work.

The project is jointly funded by MHCLG’s Local Digital Fund and a new partnership of Local Authorities backed by the Christie Foundation. Both MHCLG and this group of authorities are looking to develop shared approaches on data and tech to improve the lives of vulnerable people.

We’re starting this blog because we think that if councils share knowledge and work together then we can get much more done. Now that we’ve got a set of findings, we want to share them and get feedback from other people who care about children’s services.

What is this project about?

Our project is about getting better data to make sure we provide the best services to children in care. Children in care are some of the most vulnerable members of society, and councils provide vital support to them and their families.

When a child has to be taken away from their family to protect their welfare, the council takes over parental responsibility for them. Councils work hard to understand what the best support is for them, but also what they can afford. This requires tough decisions. These decisions, like which support services to provide, or what type of placements to invest in, make a huge difference to these young people’s lives.

So where do we come in?

Councils need better data and evidence to improve decisions on how to support children in care. They need to know what works so they can do more of it. Should they prioritise investing in mental health support, or in drug and alcohol services? To answer questions like these, they need to effectively track what the outcomes are for children who get this support, which is not always easily done with current IT and data systems. If we can get the data to show what the impact of these tough decisions is, then councils can better learn from them and make sure they provide the best possible support to children and families.

To do this, we need to get better data together — data on what children’s needs are, what their experiences of services are, and how much these services help them — and we need to analyse it and show the results clearly. This is something that every council could do individually, but would be more effective if done together.

We also need to understand how to get this data in the right place and make sure it’s good quality, so we’re going to look at the types of mistakes that creep into data and how these are fixed at the moment.

If all councils were to collect the same data and keep it in the same way, then we could start to really effectively share and work together. One council could build a tool to analyse their data, and straight away it could be shared with all the others without everyone rebuilding it separately. We could compare outcomes and results from the different approaches and strategies councils take to help all to learn and improve services. And we could start to build up a shared pool of practical evidence on what really works to improve children’s lives.

To understand how to create this better, shared way of collecting data, we need to do two things:

1) We need to understand what data would really have a big impact on children’s lives. We need to map out the biggest decisions that affect children in care, and what data and evidence would help us make these better. Comparing this to what’s available today will tell us what our new approach will need.

2) We need to understand practically how we get that data together. Does it exist? Where is it stored? What data is it appropriate for us to put together? How good quality is it? To do this, we need to understand the current data collection and error fixing processes. Specifically, we’re looking at how the data for the “SSDA903 return” (or simply “903”) is collected. The 903 is a dataset on children in care that every council reports yearly to the Department for Education. We’ve heard from analysts that this is currently very time-consuming, resource intensive and frustrating, taking several months every year of analyst, support and social worker time. We want to understand the painpoints in the process and the best practice that each council has developed, so we can share learnings and make this more efficient.

What have we done so far?

So far, over the first sprints, we’ve had our heads down getting busy with our user research. First, we held a kick-off with the teams from across the councils and Social Finance to pool our thoughts and define our approach. Then we got out interviewing users across the three councils, covering everyone from the Head of Children’s Services through to the teams working with data day-to-day. We held a first show-and-tell workshop to share what we’d learnt and we’re holding our second one this week.


So far, we’ve held 16 semi-structured interviews across the three councils, and have more scheduled in the coming weeks. As we go, we synthesise all of our interview notes using a Realtime Board, which you can see in the picture below. Here, we group anonymised quotes and key takeaways into themes for each authority. We then pull the main insights out, looking for differences and commonalities across the three authorities:

Synthesising our findings from interviews in Wigan

This approach means we can be sure we’re capturing all of the valuable information from our user interviews and that we’re not being biased as we draw out our user personas, painpoints and user needs.

We’ve also used the information gathered in interviews to map out the 903 data returns process for each authority, highlighting the different user workflows, innovations and painpoints:

Mapping out the 903 returns process in one authority


So far, very briefly, the results clearly show that the biggest painpoint around collecting data on children in care is with data quality — probably not surprising to many councils! However, the three authorities have different patterns of data errors depending on their process. The teams in each council have developed different approaches to dealing with these errors. This is one of the places where we think there’s a real opportunity to work better together.

From leadership and decision makers, there is a clear need for better outcomes data to understand and evidence which services and approaches are most effective. They want to be able to better target the right people with the right services, and invest in the services that really work to improve people’s lives. We’ll tell you much more about our findings in our next blog post!


This Wednesday, we’re hosting a show-and-tell workshop in Manchester to take the whole team through the interview findings and decide on our next steps. We’re also doing further user interviews in Stockport and Manchester on Thursday and Friday. We’ll let you know how we get on, so stay tuned!



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Social Finance UK

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