Stakeholders’ report: Key messages

This section is about the role of sector constituents in promoting and enabling a digitally ready social work workforce, including an overview, plus detailed messages for individual stakeholders. These messages are based on the initial findings of this project.

Overview of key messages

  • Social workers want to engage with digital technology; however, they want it to enable relationship-based practice and improve the experiences of people who use services.
  • Social workers can help to shape policy, practice, procurement and technology if they are digitally literate and actively engaged in decision making and planning locally and nationally.
  • Managers should address training needs and ensure critical reflection on the ethics of digital technology in supervision.
  • Senior managers should ensure that social workers have current and functioning equipment, reliable connectivity, and systems that enable rather than hinder practice and integration.
  • Strategic leaders should ensure that social workers and experts by experience (EbE) are involved in the design, development, and procurement of digital technologies. These should be underpinned by principles of co-production.
  • Educators should include digital capabilities in social work education programmes using the Health and Care Digital Capabilities Framework and the Professional Capabilities Framework.
  • EbE want technology to improve outcomes for them, meet their distinct needs, and increase access to information and services. Use of digital technology should be rights-based – e.g. right to self-determination, consent, privacy and confidentiality.
  • Technology developers and suppliers should meaningfully involve social workers and EbE to ensure efficacy, efficiency, and effectiveness.
  • The sector should work together to ensures systems work across health, care and related services as social workers and services demand interoperability and integration.
  • Policy makers should provide a conducive policy framework that promotes systems integration, coherent regulations on data governance and a digitally ready workforce.
  • Sector leaders should ensure transparency around purpose, design and procurement of systems and the increasing use of AI and predictive analytics in social work.

Messages for key stakeholders

  • Social workers Open

    Digital capability is part of the professional standards of practice for social workers. It is a capability within the Professional Capabilities Framework and part of the Social Work England Professional Standards from 2 December 2019. Digital capability also enables social workers to attain and demonstrate the skills and knowledge in the Post-qualifying: knowledge and skills statement for child and family practitioners and the Knowledge and Skills Statement for Social Workers in Adult Services.

    Social workers’ roles include accurate recording of their interactions with people using services and other professionals, e.g. using digital systems to record and review assessments and care plans. Digital technology can render these work processes more timely, comprehensive and inclusive when the hardware and software systems – and administrative support for them – are designed around the social workers’ practice.

    Due to the pace and scale of technological change, social workers should engage professionally with digital and keep learning through Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

    CPD can include trainer-led or self-directed online learning, use of apps or written material, reflection based on professional curiosity to raise individual awareness, or through peer-to-peer and group supervision models. The types of CPD offered should be commensurate with social workers’ needs and learning styles.

    Social workers should embrace and extend their use of digital technology where it can assist with the core business of social work - improving outcomes and experiences for people who use services. For instance:

    • Simple digital technology that has become commonplace in daily personal life can (with appropriate protocols) facilitate relationship-based practice by increasing frequency and speed of communication e.g. through appropriate use of email, texting, apps and other online platforms.
    • Social workers can improve social inclusion and enable positive peer networks of support through helping service users of all ages to access online resources and communities.
    • Where online record systems are integrated, and the right permissions have been applied, decision-making about care and support can be more efficient and more holistic, ensuring faster interventions and supporting preventative practice.
    • For people with specific needs – for instance some autistic adults, people with learning disability, dementia service users, and Looked After Children - digital technologies can enable them to express their wishes. This is empowering and rights-based practice and will ensure that they enjoy the same right to self-determination and choice as everyone else.

    Social workers need to integrate safeguarding and assessment capability into their digital and online skills. They should understand risks associated with digital technology and how to use digital tools in their safeguarding duties under the Care Act 2014 and Children Act 1989.

    Critical reflection, understanding of ethics, and good decision-making skills are required across social work and need to be adapted to digital challenges. Social workers will encounter ethical dilemmas – for instance balancing the right of people using services to online privacy and confidentiality balanced against disclosing information in safeguarding.

    Social workers should ensure that use of digital technology and online platforms do not create risks for service users and mitigate them where they occur.

    Social workers should understand their duties under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).

  • Supervisors of social workers, team managers and practice leaders Open

    Managers and supervisors can support good practice by promoting digital capabilities for social workers. Many digital technologies are already incorporated into routine practice – for instance in using online systems to capture assessments, interventions, and care plan reviews.

    An enabling question about whether a particular technology should be adopted is ‘how can it enhance relationship-based practice, address people’s needs (including safeguarding), and foster rights-based practice?’

    Supervisors and managers can encourage role-specific and practice-focused digital capabilities by including them in Personal Development Plans.

    Where social workers require foundational digital skills, a combination of face to face training and coaching may be the most effective route.

    Trainer-directed CPD can increase initial confidence and problem-solving approaches, which can be increased by self-directed, peer and online learning.

    Like all professionals, social workers need to be trained and be confident to make the most of existing and emerging digital technologies to facilitate their work. This means having a suitable digital environment in which to work and the right equipment.

    Critical reflection on the ethical implications of digitisation in social work should be addressed in supervision.

  • Senior managers (e.g. heads of integrated services, principal social workers, assistant directors, heads of IT and system procurement) Open

    Social workers and EbE want to use digital technology that is accessible, intuitive, and effective. They must also be interoperable and enable integrated working.

    Social workers should not be tied up in computer admin which is outside their ‘core business’ but as professionals, social workers know data gathering is important for improvement and assurance Senior managers should explain why social workers need to be engaged in data recording and collection– for instance, what data gathered by social workers is for performance management, training needs analysis, or for meeting wider organisational goals?

    Organisations need to collect data but as far as possible, this should not add to the social work task or divert from the core activities and purpose of practice.

    The priority for new digital technologies should be relationship-based practice and person-centred care. Performance management should be about meeting these objectives.

    Systems should be interoperable (with partner agencies wherever possible), secure, and accessible. They should also enable information sharing between professionals within teams and between agencies.

    Local policies can restrict social workers’ digital capabilities where they prohibit them from using ‘everyday’ technologies (e.g. undue restrictions on email, text, WhatsApp, Skype, Facetime).

    Most people using services also want to use diverse digital platforms to interact with services and professionals. Local policies should support social workers and people using services to communicate and share information safely, confidently and creatively

    It is recommended that organisational leaders review their local data governance policies to ensure proportionality, currency, and efficacy. (See chapter 3 of Data management and use: Governance in the 21st Century. A joint report by the British Academy and the Royal Society)

    There should be multi-disciplinary teams with different skills to design, develop, and procure local digital systems. The involvement of social workers and EbE will ensure systems and technologies reflect the realities of practice and are efficacious.

  • Strategic leaders (e.g. directors, local politicians, commissioners, heads of private, voluntary and independent providers) Open

    Strategic and political leaders should ensure clarity of purpose and objectives in the use of technology in their organisations.

    A mix of technical and non-technical managers and user-led organization should oversee the development of digital and technology programmes. This is because [w]ith the assumption that digital government is all about technology, digital teams are put in the driving seat of reform efforts. Much-needed collaboration with non-technical teams can be missed.

    Copeland, E. 2018. A brief Introduction to Digital Transformation. London. Nesta

    There should be procedures for involving EbE, social workers in different services and technical staff, in managing an organisation’s digital infrastructure and processes. This should be underpinned by principles of co-production.

    Leaders should consider innovative models to address specific challenges in making social workers digitally ready. For instance, principal social workers can be the link between technical and service delivery teams, clinical commissioning groups and local authorities can jointly fund social worker posts aimed at driving the use of digital technology in service.

  • Educators (e.g. universities and higher education institutes (HEIs)) Open

    Majority of respondents to the project survey reported that their social work training did not prepare them for digital readiness in practice. This included 25% (very unhelpful), 27% (unhelpful) and 37% (neither helpful or unhelpful). Thus, while student social workers use digital technologies, this survey finding suggest that the skills and knowledge they gain within education settings are not being transferred to practice.

    Qualifying social work programmes should ensure that newly qualified social workers are digitally ready for practice and are able to engage with the risks and opportunities of digital technologies.

    HEIs should ensure that student social workers receive training in digital capabilities as stipulated in the Professional Capabilities Framework. The use of A Health and Care Digital Capabilities Framework can ensure consistency across all social work training courses

    HEIs and teaching partnerships should develop CPD programmes in digital capabilities, identifying which specialist skills are required for some distinct social work roles – for instance in criminal justice, youth offending, online safeguarding.

    EbE with specific needs should be involved in training students about how particular technologies benefit them - for instance communication aids with people with learning disability and adults diagnosed with dementia, videos and apps with Looked After Children, and assistive technology that empowers blind people.

    Modules in social work ethics should address ethical issues in (e.g.) ‘datafication’ and digitisation of welfare systems, highlighting national guidelines and guidance – e.g.the British Association of Social Workers Social Media Policy.

  • Experts by experience (EbEs): people who use services, their families and carers Open

    EbE involved in this project were enthusiastic about the benefits of digital technologies. However, some of these technologies (including hardware) cost money. To encourage use of beneficial technologies, developers and service providers need to make them freely available to EbE.

    EbE should be supported to self-advocate and demand their right to consent to the uses of their data and protection under GDPR.

    EbE should be enabled to co-produce digital technology by outlining the distinct benefits of the inclusion of their lived experience and clarifying their expectations as citizens living in an increasingly digital society

    They should be involved in the training of social workers’ digital capabilities, including programme design, teaching and assessment of students’ digitally readiness.

  • Technology developers and companies Open

    Developers should involve social workers and EbE at the early stages of design, development and procurement.

    To encourage their use, technologies should reflect the ‘realities’ of practice and the values-driven motivations of practitioners. Therefore, developers should increase their understanding of social work practice by directly co-producing technology with EbE and practitioners.

    Social workers will respond to systems that prioritise peoples’ needs over organisational objectives, although they are not mutually exclusive. This requires developers to explain how technologies address these issues.

    There is a demand within the social work for transparency and debate about:

    • design and procurement
    • rationale underpinning systems (re) design
    • why they are required to do administrative tasks that divert their attention from practice to data collection and entry
  • Policy makers (e.g. Government departments, Chief Social Workers, civil servants, think tanks, national politicians) Open

    Digitisation in social work is being driven by policies contextualised within the NHS and healthcare. However, while symbiotic, the NHS and social care have significant differences in aims, structures, and personnel.

    Digital technology can support the integration of services, where appropriately supported and implemented to meet the primary tasks and requirements of all stakeholders and digital users.

    The NHS has developed a policy framework on digitisation, and this should be replicated in social work. All stakeholders in this project reported fragmentation and inoperability, which is partly explained by the different government departments with social work responsibilities pursuing different objectives on digitisation.

    Policy makers should address digital capabilities of social workers across all settings and with different roles and responsibilities

    A review of current data governance rules is required to make them consistent. Clarity between the GDPR and safeguarding duties is also required.

  • National bodies for sector leaders, regulators, and inspectors (e.g. ADASS, ADCS, NHS England, Social Work England, NHSX, CQC, OFSTED, NHS Digital, Care England) Open

    Fragmentation of digital systems at national level impacts negatively on the day-to-day work of social workers and this in turn affects the outcomes experienced by people who use services. Social workers should be at the heart of integrated health and social care services and understand how technology can enhance integration.

    Leaders should ensure more integration of systems, technologies and processes that genuinely work for all professionals to facilitate integrated health and social care

    In part, inspection of social care services (e.g. by Ofsted and CQC) is also an evaluation of social workers’ digital capabilities and whether the digital technology of their employers enable or hinder good practice.

    There is a need for sector leadership in developing common policy frameworks and processes to underpin systems design, outputs, and procurement contracts. (See Chapter 6 of Connected Councils: A Digital Vision of Local Councils in 2015)

    A common framework for procurement and design will enable standardisation and achieve the policy goal of interoperability, leading to the realisation of the full benefits of integrated services and systems for users of services and social workers.

    National bodies should understand and aim to influence the system supplier market to ensure that new system development takes account of the needs of social workers and service users.

    Leaders should also develop processes for cross-sector learning and knowledge sharing about the benefits of adopting new digital technologies.

    Social workers and sector leaders who participated in interviews and workshops advocated for greater transparency and open debate about the use of predictive analytics in health and social care.

    Regulators and sector leaders should work with stakeholders in social work to increase the content and effectiveness of training on digital capabilities at pre and post qualifying levels.

Digital capabilities for social workers: Stakeholders’ report
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