Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/11/28/contactpoint_numbers/

Reg digging exposes holes in ContactPoint numbers

Complacent government estimates could endanger project

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Government, 28th November 2008 10:56 GMT

Government ministers have been misleading Parliament for the last year by repeatedly giving out estimates for the likely number of users for their ContactPoint Database that are significantly lower than suggested by their own research. According to IT experts, if these results have not been taken into account, this could damage the long-term success of the project.

Earlier in the month, we carried out analysis suggesting that the government may have significantly under-estimated the likely number of users of the new ContactPoint database, perhaps by a factor of three. Response from individuals working in sectors likely to be affected has been mixed, with many saying that our estimate of about one million is more plausible as an eventual outcome than the figure of 330,000 repeatedly quoted by Government Ministers.

Now we learn that a report produced over 12 months ago put the most likely figure at 365,000 - or 10 per cent more than has been quoted by ministers. The Department's own National Workforce Analysis from October 2007, released in response to The Register continuing to probe, concludes: "Our current best estimate of national user numbers is 365,000, with a likely range of 300,000 to 450,000. This is broadly consistent with earlier estimates used in the business case (330,000 users, with a somewhat wider range)."

Yet here in February 2008, some five months after that research was published, we have Kevin Brennan, then a junior minister at the DCSF, still repeating the figure of 330,000 in response to a question in the Commons.

The document also included a number of issues in respect of the quality of data captured - most of which would tend to inflate the final figure, rather than lower it.

This is supported by the answer given to a Parliamentary Question this week, which now puts the likely figure at 390,000, with a range of possible outcomes between 220,000 and 480,000. However, government embarrassment may be spared a few days longer by the fact that the answer was slipped out last thing, just before parliament was pro-rogued, and a backlog in printing up Hansard, the official record of proceedings, means it may be a few days before MP's are fully aware of how numbers have shifted.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has consistently claimed that access to the ContactPoint Database will be highly restricted and only a very small proportion of the near-three million individuals identified in legislation as entitled to access it ever will. That does beg the question of how a system whose objectives are to improve the care of individual children by facilitating contact between professionals, can achieve that objective if all information has to be accessed through a series of departmental gate-keepers.

As we reported last week, organisations such as ACPO are sceptical that the limited access proposed for the police will be sufficient to allow ContactPoint to achieve its stated aims.

Parliamentary critics of the scheme have been attempting for some time to understand the basis for the government’s user figure.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we now believe that it first surfaced in a feasibility study into information sharing carried out in 2004 on behalf of a cabinet office sub-committee - MISC9(D) - chaired by secretary of state for education and science Charles Clarke. This sub-committee was itself part of cabinet committee MISC9, which was chaired by the then chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Government appears to be placing a great deal of faith in this study. They quoted it in evidence to the Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments back in 2007.

As recently as a week ago, a spokesperson for the DCSF reaffirmed the Department’s confidence in the figure of 330,000 despite the fact that it was calculated before the legislation enabling ContactPoint to go ahead had been passed, and long before it was clear as to who might be using the system. The DCSF also appeared to prefer the 2004 figure over anything based on more recent research.

Since the original feasibility study, the DCSF has carried out a series of workforce analyses designed to identify potential users of ContactPoint on an authority by authority basis. Individual results are publicly available, either directly from local authorities, or published on the web, but until yesterday The Register was unable to get hold of the full national picture.

In an effort to get to the bottom of the most likely user figure, we looked at the user numbers estimated by a sample of authorities and used those to estimate a figure for the whole of England. Much caution is needed, since different authorities have adopted views of varying degrees of conservatism. Kingston on Thames expects to have a mere 420 users initially – which is about 3 people per 1,000 in the Borough.

Newcastle estimates it will have 4,000 users, which is around five times as many on a pro rata basis. Although authorities are supposed to include counts for all categories of professional who may be a user, the police have indicated that they have not yet determined how they will interface with ContactPoint.

Our result, from authorities representing around 10 per cent of England was about nine users per 1,000 population – or 450,000 users nationwide.

Whilst the DCSF may have been using a wider range internally, this has not been a feature of responses to inquiries on the subject, which have tended to focus on the single figure quoted above.

Does this have any impact on the project overall? The Register spoke with a UK expert on the building of high-profile IT systems and his response was cautionary. He said: "I would expect the system to work. However, it is likely that it would be much slower than originally envisaged – and there would also be issues with bandwidth. A worst case scenario would see some users having to wait a while before they could access the data they need.

"In the end, it all boils down to how much slack there was in the original brief. If the system designers allowed for a degree of expansion, then there should not be too great a problem. If they were required to pare it down to exact requirements in order to meet tight budgetary guidelines, then there could be trouble ahead."

Shadow Families Minister Maria Miller said: “The figures quoted by ministers about how many thousands of people will have access to this database of every child in the country keep changing all the time. At the very least, this suggests that they don’t really have anything more than a ballpark idea themselves. They have already been warned that this database can never be secure. It’s time to scrap Contactpoint and focus on a smaller, more targeted system of child protection.” ®