DoCS blames IS for reporting woes

Amid a parliamentary inquiry into NSW child protection systems, the Department of Community Services will replace its "obsolete" information systems with a reported $40 million cash injection from the state Government.

In the wake of two scathing reports criticising its information systems, the Department of Community Services (DoCS) issued a request for tender in January to replace its 15-year-old, mainframe-based client information system (CIS) and PC-based stand-alone intake tracking system.

The existing CIS has been blamed for a number of serious problems at DoCS, including the claim that poor record keeping is endangering children.

However, DoCS management has been aware for some time of the inadequacies of the CIS, according to the Ombudsman's report.

A report by the NSW Ombudsman, titled DoCS - Critical Issues, cited significant problems with the current CIS, which was developed in-house with assistance from contractors in the 1980s.

Computerworld made repeated attempts to contact managers in the IT department at DoCS IT, but these were rejected by the NSW child protection agency's management. Computerworld will continue its attempts to speak to the IT staff over the coming weeks as the tender is let.

The report, released in April, said DoCS' head office detailed key problems "in a refreshingly frank but bleak assessment of the CIS".

Key problems include the current CIS, which is so poor that it is a disincentive for staff to use the system, which is intended to record critical and serious information. Also, a lack of information makes it almost impossible for DoCS management to plan and for users to obtain timely statistics. The report also states the current system is too complex for users to navigate.

"The delays in upgrading or replacing the system have contributed to the chaotic nature of DoCS records," the report said.

"Without the right systems, records and support, appropriate child protection interventions become as much a matter of good luck as good management" the report concludes.

"An inadequate computer system means incomplete information which nobbles management's efforts to plan work across DoCS."

Commenting on the Ombudsman's report, Shadow Minister for Community Services Brad Hazzard said DoCS is in "chaos".

Hazzard has called for a "desperately overdue" Royal Commission into the embattled department saying children are being placed at risk.

According to Hazzard, restructuring and departmental reform did not adequately address the problems that have plagued the department for years.

Hazzard also criticised the information systems in DoCS, saying the latest in a series of highly critical watchdog reports confirms they are "inadequate".

"The data systems are so bad that it appears senior management and the Government didn't realise how bad until it all blew apart publicly," Hazzard told Computerworld, adding there has been insufficient focus in getting data collection systems right.

"Data is effectively locked away in a software drawer, only to be dragged out after a child dies. Sometimes not even then," Hazzard said.

"DoCS lies somewhere between the dark ages and the 20th century. Definitely not the 21st century."

Tender decision close

In her opening address to the Child Protection Services inquiry, DoCS director general Carmel Niland blamed the lack of a new CIS for hampering the department's recently launched Helpline child protection hotline, as it takes longer to log calls on the outdated system.

Niland said the department is moving to a totally electronic system.

"We had been working hard on systems improvement and clearly not hard enough," Niland said at the inquiry.

The department told Computerworld that the Request for tender was not in response to Shadow Minister for Community Services, Brad Hazzard's criticisms. "This has been an ongoing process, simply to update what is a now outdated system, more than 15 years old."

DoCS would not reveal current contenders for the contract, but said "DoCS is in the process of making a decision on the successful tender and a contract is expected to be signed by the end of June, at which time an announcement will be made."

Although Treasury has approved funding for the CIS, DoCS informed the Ombudsman that an electronic document management system was not approved. This is now dependent on the implementation of shared services across the Department of Community Services, Department of Housing and Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care.

The department was also silent on the amount to be invested; yet it recently said publicly that the Government would invest $40 million in new technology to improve DoCS' information systems.

"This is to support DoCS' program of significant legislative and policy changes," a department spokesman said.

DoCS expects the new system to be implemented during the first half of 2003.

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