Getting IT right in the Public Services - Improving Design through Action Research
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Nottingham
Unit of AssessmentBusiness and Management Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Built Environment and Design: Design Practice and Management
Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services: Business and Management
Summary of the impact
All too many IT projects fail, as many as 80%. To improve systems design
in the public sector, Wastell has undertaken a sustained programme of
action research, the main fruit being a design and innovation methodology,
known as SPRINT. Its deployment has generated impressive benefits, e.g. a
recent project produced an innovative set of tools for improving
safeguarding in healthcare. Wastell's research has also highlighted the
dysfunctions of the Integrated Children's System (ICS), a national IT
initiative in social care. The research directly influenced the redesign
of the ICS, feeding into the Munro Review of Child Protection, and has
guided subsequent design work on IT for social care.
Information Systems (IS) development has a poor record in both the public
and private sectors, with IT initiatives all too often ending in failure.
The vicissitudes of the NHS mega-project, "Connecting for Health", provide
a recent spectacular example. To address this problem, Wastell has
undertaken a sustained body of research aimed at improving methods for
systems design in the public sector. Since his appointment at Nottingham,
this has focused on health and social care. The main fruit of this work is
a design and innovation methodology, known as SPRINT, which provides an
integrated set of design tools and techniques. The development of SPRINT
has followed an action research approach, i.e. an iterative research
methodology, involving cycles of action, evaluation and refinement. The
method is thus constantly evolving, via feedback from its practical
application in design projects and from the reflective experience of its
users. The most recent phase of SPRINT's development (2007 onwards) has
seen a fundamental shift in emphasis. Originally produced for the
technical specialist, Wastell has redeveloped SPRINT as a tool-set for
managers in general, arguing that design and innovation are integral to
the managerial role.
The evolution of SPRINT through action research is described in [3.1].
The concept of "managing as designing" is elaborated in [3.2] which sets
out implications for the future development of the Information Systems
field. The recent book by Wastell [3.3] draws together the various strands
of his research on systems design in the public services. The book
emphasizes the lead role to be played by public managers as designers and
innovators in today's financially straitened times, i.e. since the
financial crisis of 2008. Only innovative design enables the achievement
of "more with less". Key examples are drawn from his ongoing work; a range
of design tools and methods are described, including SPRINT, and
implications are articulated for management education and practice.
Two important action research projects may be highlighted during the
2008-2013 period, both in child welfare. The first (ESRC funded [3.1])
involved a critique of a national IT system, the Integrated Children's
System (ICS), used by social workers in statutory children's services.
This critique called for the redesign of the ICS and is described in
several publications [e.g. 3.3, 3.4] which show how the ICS has disrupted
professional practice. The research called for a different approach to
design based on user-centred principles, and the design of a prototype
"social care workstation" was sketched out in [3.5]. The second project,
instituted in 2012, has been funded by the National Institute for Health
Research NIHR [3.1]. The aim of this project is to enhance safeguarding at
the hospital/social care interface. Using an action research approach, a
set of tools has been developed for improving decision-making in acute
hospital settings regarding children potentially at risk of abuse. The
work has followed SPRINT principles and will produce further insights into
design in the public sector, including refinements in methodology.
References to the research
3. ***Wastell, D.G. (2011). Beyond techno-magic: managing as designing in
the public services. Triarchy Press (available on request).
4. **White, S., Wastell, D.G., Broadhurst, K. and Hall, C. (2010). When
policy o'erleaps itself: the tragic tale of the Integrated Children's
System. Critical Social Policy, 27 (4), 443-461, doi:
Grant Award Details
1. Grant awarded to White, S., Wastell, D. and Pithouse, A. (2009).
Error, Blame and Responsibility in Child Welfare: Problematics of
Governance in an Invisible Trade. ESRC End of Award Report,
RES-166-25-0048-A. Swindon: ESRC. £330k.
2. Grant awarded to White, S., Wastell, D., Smith, S. and DeBelle, G.
(2012/13). Making the Case in Safeguarding: Enhancing Safe Practice at the
Interface between Hospital Services and Children's Social Care. NIHR,
Health Services Research Programme, c£200k
Details of the impact
The types of impact are described in two sections: the first relates the
general impact of SPRINT on practice, via practitioner training and
projects undertaken using the method, including a recent major project in
health care. The second section specifically focuses on the impact of
Wastell's research on the Integrated Children's System.
Informing practice: SPRINT training and projects
An audit of SPRINT training was carried out in 2010. At that time,
approximately 1150 individuals in 150 or so agencies (>300 in 2008-10)
had been trained in SPRINT by Salford City Council, in collaboration with
Wastell. Salford City Council were partners in the original development of
SPRINT, and used the methodology extensively on their e-Government
programme prior to 2005, and the Council has since continued its use of
SPRINT as a service improvement framework [3.4]. The training audit
included a user survey. This showed a lasting positive benefit for over
60% of delegates.
To support the ongoing development of SPRINT, a User Group was
established in 2005; User Group conferences have been held in 2008-12.
Numerous workshops have also been held in various regions, designed and
led by Wastell, especially during his sabbatical in 2009 (e.g. Bristol,
London and Newcastle). International interest in SPRINT has come from as
far afield as India (Ministry of Communication and IT) and Brazil (Agência
Metropolitana de Minas Gerais). SPRINT has been updated since 2008, with a
new website, an accreditation scheme and an advanced training model
developed by Wastell; the latter has been piloted in one LA (Halton).
SPRINT has been extensively used on service design projects within the
user community and a number of case studies are documented in [3.4], on
Wastell's website [5.1] and the official SPRINT website [5.2] which attest
to the continuing impact of the methodology. An example is the "School's
Portal" project in Lancashire County Council aimed at reducing bureaucracy
in schools [5.3]. The project, led by a senior manager in the Children and
Young People's Directorate (CYPD), has delivered very significant benefits
, with savings of approximately £2 million estimated for the period
2008-10. Quoting from the case study report [5.3]:
"The project, led by Jane Beckford, followed the principles of SPRINT...
Of the 83 business processes that the teams have re-engineered, the one
that delivered the greatest return in terms of improvement was replacing
printed materials with traceable electronic documentation. This reduced
the overall bill from £1.6m to £100,000 in the first two years... The
process re-engineering has identified waste and freed up time for people
to do things that couldn't be done before. It has been about creating
capacity within the organisation to deliver more for less, and to deliver
a service that is measurably better than before."
The most recent SPRINT project has been funded by the National Institute
for Health Research [3.2]. This 18 month project was launched in early
2012. It is a collaborative project with Pennine Acute Hospitals Trust
(Manchester). The aim is to develop a set of tools for improving
decision-making in acute hospital settings and communication with external
agencies, Local Authority Children's Services in particular. Although the
project is on-going, a tool, an electronic referral form, has been
designed and is in use in the Trust where it has proved to be very
effective. It was recently short-listed for an award at the National
Patient Safety Awards (July, 2013), and was runner up in its category
Redesigning the Integrated Children's System
White and Wastell's ESRC-funded research  on the Integrated Children's
System attracted the attention of policy-makers, being published at the
time of the Baby Peter trial. The ESRC rated the project as "outstanding",
to a large extent because of its policy impact and their website lists 18
outputs [5.5]. White (Professor of Social Work) was the Principal
Investigator on the project, focusing on social work policy and practice
elements; Wastell was the co-investigator addressing systems design issues
and implications. The research drew attention to the deleterious effect of
the ICS on professional practice, making errors more not less likely.
White was invited to join the Social Work Task Force, set up in the
aftermath of the "Baby Peter" trial (Jan 2009). The Task Force's final
report [5.6] called for the redesign of the ICS, and an "Improvement
Board" was set up for this purpose. Both White and Wastell were
subsequently involved in the ICT sub-group of the Munro Review of Child
Protection, Wastell for his expertise in systems design. In her final
report, Munro recommended that the design of ICT systems in social care
should follow the user-centred "socio-technical" approach recommended by
the sub-group, and which SPRINT embodies: [5.7, 5.8].
"A major challenge for local redesign is therefore to develop, with
social workers, new ICT systems to meet their case recording needs... the
analysis of requirements for ICT-based systems for child and family social
work should primarily be based on a human-centred analysis of what is
required by frontline workers." [5.7 p. 111]
Significant improvements to the design of the ICS have ensued, regarding
its usability in particular, and Wastell has worked with several
suppliers, most notably Corelogic. Wastell has been invited to present the
results of his ICS work and its policy implications to a number of
practitioner conferences, e.g. the Irish Association of Social Workers
"Call for Change" conference (Dublin, 1/7/11) and the 3rd Child Protection
and Welfare Social Work Conference in Cork (28/10/11), a major
practitioner event, attended by the Irish Minister for Children and Youth
affairs, Frances Fitzgerald.
Sources to corroborate the impact
This web-site was set up by Wastell in 2012 to provide a dedicated
resource centre for public service managers interested in design and
innovation. It contains case studies as well as technical resources for
- Official SPRINT user group web-site: www.sprint.gov.uk.
This provides details of the SPRINT methodology as well as short case
studies and details of user group events, including workshops and
- Schools Portal Project: http://www.managingbydesign.net/my_library/Portal.pdf
See category "Data/Information Management", Pennine Acute Hospitals
Trust — highly commended.
- Gibb, M. (2009). Building a safe, confident future: The final report
of the Social Work TaskForce. London: DCSF-01114
- Munro E. (2011) The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final
Report. A Child Centred System, Department for Education, UK.
- Munro, E. (2012). The Munro Review of Child Protection. Progress
report: Moving towards a child centred system. Department of