This article has been written by Calum Campbell, our Digital Social Work Policy and Practice Advisor, who attended the Conference in June 2023. If you would like to contact Calum, please get in touch via email@example.com
In June 2023, Calum Campbell, our Digital Policy and Practice Advisor, spent three days at the European Social Services Conference in Malmö, Sweden. The conference is the annual flagship event of the European Social Network, and this year saw attendance from nearly 700 delegates from 40 countries across the world. The theme of the conference was how technology and digitalisation could be used to promote autonomy and inclusion in social services.
As someone whose job is focussed on better implementation of digital technologies within social work practice, it felt particularly good to be amongst likeminded colleagues with shared common goal, and to have the time and space to thoughtfully consider how technological advancements have and can help to improve services and practice. As I reflect on everything I learned during the conference, here are some of my biggest takeaways:
- There’s an incredible amount of exciting technological developments happening across Europe and the wider world within social services. I heard examples of culturally competent robots improving mental health outcomes for older adults in social care settings, social workers in remote and rural areas accessing peer support from ‘digital colleagues’, VR being used to promote social inclusion of people with autism, software that streamlines the fostering and adoption process, and AI being used to analyse, predict, and prioritise people most likely to need and respond well to interventions.
- Technology and digitisation should work for people and communities, and it should also support professionals in their daily work; not just reduce administrative burden. Digital is not an end in itself. More interactive services that promote choice, autonomy and inclusion is the end. This of course requires a level of transparency, accountability, and digital governance. Many countries spoke about trying to have better communication with people who use their services, as well as thinking about how we create a window into their services for citizens which allowed them to access their own data.
- Technological innovation in social work and social care must support a person’s outcomes and not distract from it. A piece of software or an app is not the innovation, it’s how we use it in practice that’s truly innovative.
- When done right, digital can be transformative and even lifesaving. Kostiantyn Koshelenko, the Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Social Policy for Digital Transformation, spoke about how digital has been central to the Ukranian response to the Russian-Ukrainian war, as it allowed for a faster response, better communication and crucially meant they were able to best support the needs of their people.
- The digital world is not a level playing field- it’s only for some people in some places, and more work is required to make sure it is truly inclusive. We must digitise with care, and make sure it is for the benefit of all, and that nobody is left behind. This includes vulnerable and marginalised groups and those with poor digital skills or those with the right technology or connection. For example, 21% of the UK population are smartphone only internet users, and in low-income families it’s as high as 30%. When moving services online we must think about smartphone compatibility first, particularly for those more marginalised communities. It’s essential that face to face services are still on offer as well.
- Social work needs to be at the forefront, working with the tech sector to design innovations built for us. Many new technological and digital advances are adopted by the armed forces first, then by the business sector, often quickly followed by health and then finally by social services. We need to stop trying to take something that pre-exists, often designed with other sectors in mind and try to force it to fit our needs, and move to the forefront, working with the tech sector designing innovations built for our services in conjunction with people who both provide and use our services.
- Digital is inextricably linked to the recruitment and retention issues in the sector. It’s important to understand the baseline digital skills required by the workforce to ensure we do digital right. In the US, they’ve found that a third of staff have little to no digital skills, meaning they are feeling pushed out of the workforce. Yet young people in Sweden entering careers in social services are reporting feelings of “analogue anxiety” as the environment and way of practicing is not meeting their digital needs. In order to futureproof our profession we have to make sure that roles are attractive to the younger and more digitally competent generations, as well as being supportive for those who are not digital natives.
- Social services need to be appropriately resourced to make sure that digital innovation can take place. No longer can we make do with what we have. The UK Government Adult Social Care and Technology and Data department accredit a £200M investment into the digitisation of services and better data collection protocols as being key to their success.
- While social work and AI may appear an impossible alliance, the impact they can have on services when combined is profound. AI is already ingrained in our lives, and we are already seeing it make its way into social services. AI – when done right – enables seamless connection between people, and precisely tailored resources and interventions, and has the capacity to anticipate and mitigate potential risks.
- We need time to work out where the guardrails for AI are, as it has the potential to be significantly transformative. AI could reshape the landscape of social work, and offer boundless potential for positive change. But we will need time to understand the ramifications.
- AI systems when used incorrectly can be biased and uphold harmful beliefs– AI is typically biased in ways that uphold harmful beliefs, like race and gender stereotypes, but they are only as unbiased as the data we put into them. We must ensure institutional bias from current systems do not unexpectedly make their way into future solutions via machine learning, and therefore further entrench unjust outcomes for the most vulnerable in society.
- It’s no longer about whether we do digital or not in social services, it’s now about how we do it. Innovation and change only happens when you think outside of the box and not just carrying on doing something because that’s how we’ve always done it. We need to be more courageous and trusting in our decision making when it comes to digital. Big challenges demand a lack of respect for how we’ve always done things. When we focus too much on risk and limitations even the possible becomes impossible.
Resources you might be interested in:
- Achieving for Children UK, and their use of AI to automate and triage child protection referrals. Meaning that referrals are being appropriately recorded on the system and actioned to correct professionals in one minute; a task that previously would take a person 10-15 minutes.
- Binti, software developed to support fostering and adoption approval and matching processes. Used widely in the US and now extending over Europe
- Case Compass, the World Bank have developed resources and tools to help with the design, development and purchasing of case management systems.
- Deloitte Transforming Social Care report
- Digital Benefits Hub– An open-source reference library for practitioners who are working through complexity to improve access to public benefits and services.
- ESN Podcast- Is Technology the Key to Improving Social Services
- ESN Webinar recording: Enhancing Child Welfare: Designing Human-Centred Technology To Improve Decision Making And Social Worker Retention
- ESN Webinar recording- Promoting Innovation in Employment to Support Social Inclusion
- EY Case Study, using data to improve services in East London
- Geoff Mulgan’s book, Another World is Possible: How to Reignite Radical Politcal Imagination
- Nordic Welfare Centre Report- Integrated Healthcare and Care through distance spanning solutions
- Unicef report- Child protection: Digital opportunities, challenges and innovations across Europe and Central Asia’