Edinburgh Council's social care computer system scandal should be a resignation issue – John McLellan

Unless you’re a software engineer, just the mention of an IT upgrade or GDPR gives most working people the shivers, but effective data handling is not just essential but the law.
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System management isn’t an option but a vital part of any modern organisation, especially with highly sensitive information, and so the entirely avoidable crisis now enveloping Edinburgh’s health and social care partnership represents a catastrophic failure of both administration and accountability. Only since the publication of a damning Care Inspectorate report last month is the extent of mismanagement at the heart of Edinburgh Council becoming more widely recognised, despite problems being apparent for years.

As far back as 2016, it was known the “Swift” system for recording social care cases would need changing, and a business case for a replacement costing £5.7m was considered by the council’s senior officers in 2019 but rejected because of “other priorities”, despite increasing urgency. Councillors were not informed. Mounting problems were identified by council auditors and a report in January called for a new business case to be presented in February, but another meeting last month ─ the same day the Care Inspectorate reported the system was “out of date and not fit for purpose” ─ was told the business case would not be ready til autumn.

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The Care Inspectorate’s findings could not have been more damning: no coherent strategy for using data to measure outcomes, no accurate assessment of need or of available care options, a system unable to facilitate “seamless, person-centred care”. A report to last week’s finance committee echoed those findings, including wasting staff time, “significant issues” with data quality and accuracy, a lack of cost control causing over-payments, and an inability to track child cases through various services. Astonishingly, security risks were uncovered because sensitive information was being stored outside the system, allowing unauthorised access, something raised by whistle-blowers.

The business case might now be produced in June, yet officers are still arguing it must demonstrate how a new system will help cut costs, despite clear evidence the current set-up is kaput and probably illegal. Failure to replace will therefore have dire consequences, savings or no savings. The Edinburgh Integration Joint board chair, Labour councillor Tim Pogson, seems to think everything’s in hand while another new councillor, the SNP’s Vicky Nicolson, who happens to be a social worker, suggested there’s no point spending money ahead of the Scottish Government’s new National Care Service although not even the First Minster knows when that might be.

Even if the business case is ready in June, it will be up to three years before a new system can be introduced so the council will just have to bumble on with an already obsolete set-up. The council’s finance director Hugh Dunn told last week’s meeting the rejection of the system replacement in 2019 was all about priorities and “members decide the budget each year”. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but the chief executive Andrew Kerr has admitted the choice was never put to councillors, which Mr Dunn should have known.

Deliberately keeping councillors in the dark about blocking such a crucial project should be a resignation issue, especially as a link to the whistleblowing scandals has been confirmed. Just don’t expect anyone to do the honourable thing.