‘Digital by default’

In England, public services are increasingly provided under the government’s 'digital by default' (e-government) strategy. This policy has made digital technology an indispensable interface between people and public services. Yet access to digital and technology resources, and ability to use them well, is unequally distributed within the population. Social workers have a professional obligation to understand e-government and its implications for equal access to services and resources.

In both adult and children’s social care, there is a policy drive to increase the role of technology in delivering services and peoples’ use of them (Local Government Association, 2016). The internet is an important medium for people to claim and exercise their legal and human rights and get the services they need to maintain their wellbeing.

Social workers need to continuously improve their digital capabilities to:

  • support peoples’ human rights through digital inclusion and access to e-government services (BASW, 2018)
  • improve service quality
  • fulfil young people and adults’ expectations of social workers’ digital and technology capabilities and confidence
  • safeguard children and adults from online and digitally-related abuse and risk
  • fulfil professional and legal requirements (Taylor, 2017)

Digital technology is already used in all areas of social work and all groups of people who use services and is only set to develop further.

The emergence of ‘e-social work’

Digital technology is changing the nature of social work practice and leading to the development of new roles for social workers. This has been called ‘e-social work’:

 Social work that uses ICTs [Information and Communication Technology] within this techno-social sphere… e-social work could be understood as a social work field where individuals, communities and groups have needs and it is possible to develop intervention programmes, conduct research projects and design public policies to address them. Today, several public administrations manage social services using ICTs and non-profit organizations provide assistance using the Internet. E-social work comprises online research, therapy (individual, group and community dynamics), the teaching and training of social workers and the monitoring of social service programmes. In this regard, e-social work has become the new social work frontier. (López Peláez and Marcuello-Servós, 2018; p. 801; emphasis added).

Digital technology can speed up social work processes, integrate information from different sources thus enhancing the reliability and accuracy of social workers’ decision-making and provide tools for people using services to manage their own needs and care.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning systems have great potential to enhance how services understand the needs of groups of people with similar characteristics. Through this, these technologies can improve planning and service delivery. However there are ethical concerns about their use in social work (Leslie et al, 2020). Where deployed, there should be transparency and their use should be underpinned by social work values. Thus from social workers’ perspective, digital practice must always meet and promote social work ethics and values. To ensure this, practitioners must understand and be able to ethically evaluate and influence how digital environments and technology are being deployed and developed. They need not only to be able to use them well but also to influence the context and purposes of technology use.

At the same time, it is recognised that digital technology can support and enable values-based social work if used appropriately. For instance, digital technology can underpin supported decision-making with people with impaired mental capacity. Social workers can share information faster (where consent is required and obtained), empowering people who use services to express their wishes and only where this is not possible are mental capacity assessments conducted (Richardson, 2012). This approach also secures other human rights such as self-determination, right to privacy and right to liberty (BASW, 2018). Therefore, as well as technical competence, social workers need critical reflection and decision-making to adequately navigate the ethical issues, in their professional and social lives (Spante et al, 2018; Young et al, 2018).

The pace of technological change, alongside digitalisation of everyday life, poses new challenges for social workers because their impact can be multi-faceted. Technology that can monitor people with dementia in their homes for their safety and to personalise their care, can also be seen as intruding into their privacy. Children can access age-inappropriate online material, or they can be groomed online, and the internet can be used in sexual exploitation. However, the internet can also be used to safeguard children through education and online security settings (Koubel and Johnston, 2016). Therefore the same technology can have contradictory impacts and, with the fast-pace of change, social workers need a practice framework to update their skills.

The Digital Capabilities Statement addresses these issues by joining up current practice standards, codes and research into an integrated practice framework for social workers.

Best practice and regulatory standards

The Digital Capabilities Statement can support social workers to meet the regulatory standards, The Professional Standards (Social Work England, 2019) and other measures of best practice in social work.

In addition to The Professional Standards, social workers are required to practice according to sector-wide agreed levels of ethics, knowledge and performance. These are reflected in the Professional Capabilities Framework, the PCF, (BASW, 2018) and the Knowledge and Skills Statements (KSS) for children and adult social work developed by the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care. These frameworks are used interdependently in practice. Social worker can draw on the Digital Capabilities Statement to fulfil their requirements.

The Digital Capabilities Statement is also based around The Professional Capabilities Framework and Health Education England’s  Health and Care Digital Capabilities Framework.

The Professional Standards – Social Work England

The Professional Standards are the threshold standards that social workers must meet to lawfully practice. The Digital Capabilities Statement can support social workers to meet The Professional Standards because it explains the benefits of using technology and the skills and CPD required to demonstrate these standards.

The Professional Standards listed below state explicitly that social workers require digital capabilities to practice and they are also implicit in the other.

  1. Standard 3: 10 – ‘Establish and maintain skills in information and communication technology and adapt my practice to new ways of working, as appropriate.’ (SWE, 2019; p.8)
  2. Standard 4 – This requires social workers to use research and evidence which include digital capabilities (e.g. skills in information-searching, retrieval, analysis and storage). This Standard also requires social workers to record their continuing professional development (CPD) activities online, and reflect on their values, which will include the ethics of digital technologies.
  3. Standard 5.2 – ‘Behave in a way that would bring into question my suitability to work as a social worker while at work, or outside of work.’ (SWE, 2019; p. 12). This refers to the inappropriate use of social media and digital technologies, among other behaviours.
  4. Standard 5.6 – ‘Use technology, social media or other forms of electronic communication unlawfully, unethically, or in a way that brings the profession into disrepute.’ (SWE, 2019; p. 12).

The Professional Capabilities Framework

PCF fan

The Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) is a developmental tool that shows the expected and desired levels of social work expertise in all fields of practice. It is accepted that social workers should attain and demonstrate all the PCF capabilities irrespective of their practice settings or the needs of the people with whom they work.

There are three overarching ‘super domains’ within the PCF: Purpose, Practice and Impact. The domains of the PCF are recognised as underpinning good social work practice in England. Being able to understand and use digital technology and reflect on its impact is integral to attaining them.

The Health and Care Digital Capabilities Framework

People centred digital literacy

The Health and Care Capabilities Framework is specifically about digital capabilities in health and care settings. Therefore it ‘support[s] the improvement of the digital capabilities of everyone working in health and care. It is intended as a developmental and supportive tool that can empower and enable all staff.’ (National Health Service (NHS), 2018; p.2; emphasis added). This includes the provision of a framework for professionals to conduct self-assessment of their digital capabilities on four levels:

Level 1: Knowing and understanding – for example, the different digital tools and technologies, accompanying resources, different methods of digital communication and software

Level 2: Being able to use different digital technologies for a variety of functions

Level 3: Being a confident and capable user of digital technologies in practice

Level 4: Being a confident and expert user of digital technologies and understanding requisite roles and responsibilities