Stakeholders’ report: Findings

The findings from the ‘discovery phase’ of this project are summarised here. This phased included a rapid literature review, stakeholder Advisory Group meetings, two workshops attended by over 40 social workers in different roles and seniority, survey completed by 648 respondents, and interviews with 15 key sector leaders.

Overview of key findings

The literature suggests that social workers’ digital capabilities vary, however survey respondents in this project varies rated their digital skills as ‘Good” or ‘Very good’.

Social workers engage with digital technologies in their private lives and want this to be replicated in their professional roles. They understand the benefits of technology.

All stakeholders involved in this projected reported fragmentation and inoperability. They believe that current technology can assist with better integration of services and workstreams.

There is the need for co-production principles to underpin development and installation of digital technology. Social workers and experts by experience (EbE) should be meaningfully involved.

Social workers believe that new systems in workplaces should prioritise relationship-based practice and person-centred care over performance management. They do not want their role to include data collection for performance management and other organisational objectives.

Organisations need to collect performance management and other data, however this should not all be included in social workers’ tasks as this can divert focus from their role.

Social workers appear concerned with different ethical issues from those addressed in the literature. They want EbE to have choice over how they interact with services and for their right to self-determination to be enhanced by technology. Social workers also want data security and the threats that they receive on social media to be addressed.

Key informants suggest that social work is not utilising the full potential of current technologies because of restrictive local data governance protocols.

Social workers believe that university training does not address their digital readiness for practice. Skills, ethics, and policy should be taught in qualifying programmes.

The national policy framework on digitisation in social is fragmented. The government departments with social care responsibility should develop a unified framework with integration a key priority.

There is a desire within the sector for stakeholders to engage with each other. Technology providers should understand social work and involve social workers in all aspect of their work.

Rapid literature review

The key research questions focused on

  • Digital capability as it applies to the social work professional role and why it is important
  • Identifying the benefits of increased use of digital data, technology and social media in social work practice
  • What needs to be addressed in pre- and post-qualification work training to enable these benefits to be realised?

Literature review themes

In the broader national context of the importance of digital capability and skills in the wider UK workforce, research which specifically addresses the question of digital capability for social workers and the required strategies and frameworks to develop this is thin on the ground.

It is clear that regulators, professional bodies and social work educators in the UK (and elsewhere) have found it hard to keep abreast of the rapid pace of technological innovation and the need for new policies, guidance and training to equip social workers with the critical skills to use data and digital tools effectively.

There is some consensus about the importance of mapping and embedding digital capabilities into existing professional regulations, standards and frameworks to present a coherent professional response. The need to develop what has been termed “digital professionalism” has been highlighted (Taylor, 2017), based on core professional values and a strong vision of the benefits of digital social work practice which resonates with practitioners.

Led by Health Education England (HEE), the Building a Digital Ready Workforce programme aims to bring people together in a culture that recognises the need to innovate and the role of digital in that innovation. The mission of the programme is to assist health and care professionals in England to acquire digital skills to transform and deliver the outcomes of their role quicker, easier, safer and at a higher level of quality. This is delivered through a number of workstreams, including ‘digital champions’ which has been successful in health settings (HEE/RCN, 2018) and a new informatics role in social work (Reay, 2019).

A well-established body of social work literature considers the history of technology use by social workers and the potentially transformative impact of digitisation on their role (Ballantyne, 2017).

Information and assistive technologies are transforming the way care services are delivered but it is recognised that technology can only be an enabler if it is delivered and utilised appropriately and in a human-centred way which meets specific individual needs. (ADASS 2019)

Social workers need to understand and shape how digital technology impacts on key practice issues, and the expectations of clients they work with in relation to its use. The development of critical skills and competence as well as technical awareness is needed in order to assess and evaluate ethical issues around confidentiality, data security, online risk and the blurring of private/professional boundaries.

Social workers continue to express frustration with the design, accessibility and implementation of case management systems for recording and sharing of data (NHS Digital, 2018). There is an increasing awareness of the challenges posed by the deployment of artificial intelligence software, predictive analytics and use of “big data” in the planning and delivery of services, particularly services for children and families. (Gillingham & Graham, 2017, BASW, 2019)

The “digital readiness” for practice of social work students and the need to embed digital literacy into the curriculum to prepare students to become ethically competent practitioners is an ongoing theme (Goldingay & Boddy, 2017). Current requirements for learning and development pre- and post-qualification need to be appraised alongside research findings from work on the digital socialisation of students in readiness for practice (Taylor, 2017).

The proliferation of social media, networks and apps, and the development of critical perspectives on its use in practice is a dominant theme in recent professional literature (Westwood, 2019).

Research which systematically reviews and evaluates the use of social media interventions in practice is limited, but the opportunities presented by social media to improve practice, build and strengthen client relationships, support collaboration and integration are recognised (Jackson, 2019, Kirwan, 2019).

Particular issues have been identified for social workers working with children and young people, both in terms of educating them about and managing social media risk but understanding how young people engage with and benefit from social networking is crucial and an increasingly important part of CAMHS social work (Somerville & Brady, 2019)

Practitioners need to learn about digital technology in a real-world context making decisions based on knowledge of what’s available, what is appropriate and what works.

Workshops

The workshops enabled the scoping of the issues from across the sector. Designed to ensure England-wide participation by social workers in different roles and settings, two workshops were held in Birmingham and London. Both were advertised on the BASW website and were oversubscribed, thus enabling the project team to select attendees to ensure representativeness. The wide-ranging interest in the workshops is another evidence of the appetite for digital technology in the sector and the desire of social workers to engage with the project theme.

Attendees included:

  • A social worker employed by technology company which supplies local authority systems
  • Social workers and non-social work staff currently implementing new digital systems
  • Educators
  • Students
  • Practicing social workers in children and adult services in varying roles – for instance independent reviewing officers, managers, and independent social workers

The format of the workshops was a mixture of presentations and table top discussions. The project team explained the aims of Digital capabilities for social workers and presented analysis of the survey data and the literature review. After this, an EbE gave a talk on how they have found digital technology beneficial and outlined other potential benefits for people who use services. Following the presentations, there were table top discussions and group feedback. The workshops were therefore CPD for participants and sources of valuable ‘data’ for the project.

Workshop findings

  • There was a consensus that digital technologies can enhance social work, sometimes in unexpected ways – for instance the use of social media to identify missing looked after children. However, the ‘acid test’ for new technologies is whether they can augment the work practitioners do with and alongside people rather than replacing social workers
  • Partnerships between technology companies , IT departments, social workers and people who use services must be encouraged to ensure that new systems reflect practice realities
  • Employers are on different points of the digital transformation agenda. While some employers were ‘upgrading’ to cloud-based systems, some are now implementing ‘older’ systems. However, participants agreed that systems’ transformations profoundly impacted on practice – “it’s been a nightmare”. There were reports of deleted case records, systems unsuitable for social work processes and lack of training opportunities
  • Social workers asked for the development of a coherent CPD framework on digital capabilities and training incentives. Participants also agreed on the need for social workers to reflect on their skills and identify their training needs
  • Employers, technology companies (suppliers) and BASW should jointly agree a CPD framework for social workers
  • Some social workers reported having ‘good kit’ but these can be unreliable, “too slow” or “not integrated”. This can affect their confidence in systems and lead them to “bypass” them

Workshop participants discussions on ethics concluded that:

  • people who use services should be able to choose how they use technology to interact with professionals and services. They should also be able to determine how much of their medical and social care records are accessible to professionals
  • Some social workers’ rights to privacy have been breached because clients have accessed their social media profiles
  • The use of social media can lead to blurring of social workers’ private and professional selves
  • Some participants receive threats on social media
  • While the literature is concerned about ethics, there was little discussion about privacy and confidentiality in the workshops. One explanation may be that social workers in the workshops prioritise efficacy and efficiency over ethics.

Survey

The purpose of the survey was to gather descriptive statistics and information – to provide information about the distribution of a wide range of ‘people characteristics’, and of relationship between such characteristics. (Robson, C. 2001. Real World Research. Oxford. Blackwell Publishers. (p. 127)).

The aim was to collect data on the digital technologies used by social workers, understand their perception of their capabilities and the role of HEIs in ensuring digital readiness and what will enhance (or hinder) social workers’ use of digital technology in practice. For the methodological reasons stated, this section presents the “headline” statistics.

The survey was completed by 647 respondents practicing in children and adult services across the NHS, local authorities, the Private, Voluntary and Independent sector and in social work education. Most respondents were based in England (90%) and were employed predominantly by local authorities and integrated NHS and local authority services.

Over 40 per cent were 15 years or more qualified and demographically, the age group 45-54 were the largest participants (33 per cent), followed by 54-64 (26 per cent) and 35-44 (20 per cent).

Survey findings

Respondents rated their digital skills as ’Good’ (47per cent) or ‘Very good’ (31 per cent), with no one claiming they had ’Very poor’ skills.

Even allowing for self-selection, this data indicates some self-confidence within the workforce about its digital readiness.

Most respondents also found their social work training ‘Neither helpful nor unhelpful’ (37 per cent) or ‘Unhelpful’ (27 per cent) or ‘Very unhelpful’ (25 per cent) in preparing them for using digital technologies in practice.

The most used digital technologies were email and mobile phones, but overall, digital technology was used for a variety of tasks such as research, performance management, electronic recording, and communication.

Respondents reported mixed experiences of current information systems - hardware, software and online connectivity - in their work. Some are provided with excellent facilities and information and guidance that optimise digital options in day to day practice. Others reported inadequate, inappropriate or unreliable tools and a lack of training.

When asked which tasks that they used digital technology most for, on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (always), the most selected ‘Always’ categories were:

  • Assessments, care, planning and/or reviews (63 per cent)
  • Safeguarding children or adults (47 per cent)
  • Sending and receiving routine communications with people who use service (e.g. through email, texts or apps) (47 per cent)
  • Sharing information electronically between agencies (41 per cent).

Employers should therefore prioritise training and CPD provision in these areas.

The survey data suggests that training and CPD in digital technology are rare in social work practice. 55 per cent of respondents reported receiving training only 1-2 times within the past two years and 27 per cent received none in that period. While the survey did not ask about availability of training, it can be concluded that social workers are not attending regular training. Consequently, employers must address availability of training and how they can incentivise professionals to take up CPD opportunities.

To scope training needs further, the survey asked ‘What mode of training in digital technologies do you find/expect to be most useful?' The top three ‘Very useful’ responses were:

  • Individual coaching and advice on site (55 per cent)
  • Classroom face to face teaching (55 per cent)
  • Self-teaching (e.g. with instructions) (17 per cent).

Interviews

15 sector leaders have been interviewed using the key informant methodology:

Key informant interviews are qualitative in-depth interviews with people who know what is going on in the community. The purpose of key informant interviews is to collect information from a wide range of people—including community leaders, professionals, or residents—who have first-hand knowledge about the community [sector].

UCLA Centre for Health Policy Research. no date. Key informant interviews

Through existing contacts and research, sector leaders with unique insights into the use of digital technology were identified and interviewed over the telephone. They comprised strategic leaders of statutory services, app developers for children’s services, user-led groups, carers organisations, policy makers, and senior academics.

Interview findings

Digital technologies can enhance social work practice and outcomes for people who use services

  • Mobile technology can enable user-involvement in social workers’ assessments because they can complete forms in their presence, cross-check information and ask for immediate feedback.
  • Online forms can increase accessibility and enable self-assessment of need.
  • Digital platforms can increase availability of information, thereby enhancing informed decision-making and choice over services.
  • Assistive technology and apps can enable people with communication needs to express their wishes, thereby realising their right to self-determination.
  • Videos and apps can improve the lived experience of looked after children (LAC) – for instance preparing them for new placements, facilitating contact with their families and friends, enabling them to state their preferences, giving them access to their records, increasing their involvement in LAC reviews and statutory processes about their care, providing avenues for feedback on their placements – this can reduce placement breakdown .
  • They can enable better and speedier understanding of local (or aggregate) need, thus fostering improved commissioning, cost analysis and better targeted and more effective interventions.
  • Integration of back-end operations between organisations can lead to integrated care processes.
  • Social networking sites can reduce loneliness and social isolation for some people who use services.
  • Assistive technology can enhance quality of life and independence.
  • User-led groups can create online forums to share information, network and advocate for their needs. This can enhance the collective impact of user-led organisations.
  • Efficiency – “One of the things that we hear is how digital technology can support time saving for social workers.”

Barriers to using digital technologies in social work

  • Ineffective framework to promote new digital technologies – “putting a link on a website is not enough, digital resources need to be promoted like any other form of support”.
  • Lack of a single digital location for approved apps for social work.
  • Austerity – services are under financial pressure and therefore do not prioritise digital innovation.
  • The use of “legacy systems” in social care organisations means that they do not have available technical capacity to innovate.
  • The current policy framework which encourages multiple providers has resulted in the use of different systems, which are not integrated.
  • Lack of conducive local authority data governance and procurement framework – this impedes speedy adoption of new technologies. A key interviewee remarked “they [local authorities] tend to draw out the process…seems to be based on suspicion and risk-aversion”.
  • Costs to users – “people likely to receive services are those who are unable to afford the technology – so it is not only a cost to services but also to people receiving them.”

How to realise the full benefits of digital technologies

  • Technology must be user-centred and reflect what social workers do in practice.
  • There must be clarity of purpose for their use – for instance are they for performance management, record-keeping, process management, or are they to facilitate relationship-based practice?
  • Senior (operational) managers need technical knowledge – this requires regular training and their involvement in systems design and day-to-day management of their employers’ systems.
  • There must be a conducive policy environment.
  • There must be a strong evidence-base about their benefits – it is not to be assumed that technologies are necessarily beneficial.

Initiatives that interviewees want to take place over the next two to three years

  • Changes in local authorities’ procurement process.
  • Local authorities supporting technology companies to understand the needs of social workers and users of services.
  • Increased levels of co-production – “people who use services and social workers working alongside technology developers and not tokenistic gestures such as surveys; you can see the difference when they [developers] have built it from the ground [starting with the needs of people who use services]”.
  • More Open Source systems and software.
  • Transparency and increased debate about of the impact of the use of Artificial Intelligence in social work.
  • User-centred design and exercise to produce a proto-type of what a recording and information system would look like if designed by users (social workers and families).
  • More sharing of good practice between employers.

Digital capabilities for social workers: Stakeholders’ report
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