This Ethical Considerations section is designed to support good practice in the implementation of the Digital Capabilities Statement for Social Workers. It is derived particularly from the Professional Standards (Social Work England, 2019) which are regulatory requirements, and the Code of Ethics (British Association of Social Workers, 2020) which applies to social workers across the UK.
Social Work England summarises ethical expectations on social workers in this way:
“Ethics in the context of social work is about the professional responsibilities and values social workers have and how they conduct themselves inside and outside the workplace. Social workers respect the distinct beliefs and lifestyles of people, their families, communities and networks. They consider their own personal values, views and preferences and take measures to prevent them from impacting on their work with people. Many social workers follow ethical values or principles to guide their work. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW) both have codes of ethics that social workers in England follow.”
(Social Work England, 2019; p.7).
The BASW Code of Ethics summarises the ethical responsibilities of social workers as:
“Ethical awareness is fundamental to the professional practice of social workers. Their ability and commitment to act ethically is an essential aspect of the quality of the service offered to people who engage with social workers. Respect for human rights and a commitment to promoting social justice are at the core of social work practice throughout the world.”
The ethical expectations on social workers as defined by Social Work England and BASW apply to digital contexts as much as to any other, inside and outside the workplace. This should be the starting point for the use and engagement of digital technology by social workers.
There is a wide range of digital technology used in social work and social care and they are all not covered here as the intention is not to provide an overall coverage. The focus is on how social workers can recognise and operationalise the ethical implications of the Digital Capabilities Statement for Social Workers.
Social workers often work in multi-agency and multi-professional contexts. Therefore an awareness of the professional and ethical principles of allied professions is also important to work through ethically complex issues with diverse colleagues in practice.
Social workers recognise that social relationships have an intrinsic ethical and therapeutic value. The use of digital technology can sometimes be seen as antithetical or a hindrance to relationship-based practice which is most often defined as face to face/in person. Digital capabilities promote the idea that used properly and ethically, social workers can draw on digital technology to initiate, maintain and enhance relationship-based practice. More broadly, digital technology can be used to sustain peoples’ social networks and the quality of social relations without the limitation of time or people being physically present together. It is also a vital source of information, including for people who are physically isolated, and is part of democratising access to information, rights and power.
For this to be a reality, people using services and social workers need to have access to useful technologies and the training to use them, and this is increasingly an ethical responsibility upon commissioners and employers. The ethical principles outlined below are for social workers and health and care organisations. Organisations have ethical duties in the development, procurement, use and management of digital technologies for their staff, including social workers, and the people who use services.
However, digital technologies – like all technologies – can be misused for harm in ways that are well recognised and understood (such as the complex and highly significant safeguarding risks online for children and adults) and also throw up novel ethical and moral dilemmas in the fast-paced development of platforms and functionalities.
It is an ethical responsibility of social workers to be increasingly familiar with this broad landscape as the digital landscape increasingly shapes practice and people’s day to day experiences and expectations.
Ethical considerations for social workers
The considerations for social workers are based on existing professional standards and codes. Standards 3 and 5, The Professional Standards (Social Work England, 2019) state the ethical conduct that is expected of social workers in record keeping and technology use (including social media).
The Social Work England Professional Standards are statutory regulations, therefore social workers must adhere to them to maintain their registration to practice.
Alongside them, the Social Media Policy of the British Association of Social Workers states ‘the professional responsibilities of social workers and social work students, in relation to the increasing use of social media.’ (BASW, 2018; p.1). The recent version of the BASW Code of Ethics (2020, forthcoming, based on new Global Ethical Principles) also makes new reference to responsibilities in digital practice.
Social workers should note that their ethical considerations and reflections on how digital technology is used in any given situation significantly relates to questions of power:
- How, and by whom, has the technology been developed and how is it controlled?
- Who determines how and when it is used and how inclusive or exclusive is the process?
- How are its benefits determined and shared?
- In whose interest is this particular digital technology and its functionalities being deployed?
- Is there an abuse of power and risk to wellbeing behind how a particular digital technology is being used – whether by social workers or the people they work with?
Power is central to the answers to these questions.
In their use of digital technology in practice, social workers need to have at the forefront their responsibility to enhance wellbeing, human rights, social justice and equality, and must maintain professional integrity through critical reflection and ethical conduct.
Respect for human rights
- Uphold dignity and best interests: When using digital technology, social workers should uphold and promote human dignity and the best interests of individuals and groups in society and avoid harm.
- Respect the right to self-determination: Social workers should respect, promote and support peoples’ dignity and right to make choices about their use of technology in services. This also means seeking consent to collect personal data, and where allowed by law, informing people before sharing their personal data.
- Promote involvement: Social workers should use digital technology to promote the involvement and participation of people using services in ways that enable them to be empowered in decisions and actions affecting their lives. This can include using technology for feedback, to enable people to participate in professional meetings, plan their care, or connect people to online self-care groups.
- Promote strengths-based approaches: When determining the technology that people need to meet their needs, social workers should focus on the strengths of individuals, groups and/or communities and support their empowerment. Social workers’ role should be about maximising the capacities of people to maintain their wellbeing and safety.
- Challenge discrimination: Social workers should challenge all discrimination, including those caused or reinforced by digital technology, of people who have the 'protected characteristics' of the Equality Act 2010: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation.
- Recognise diversity: Social workers should recognise and respect the diversity of the societies in which they practise, including online communities and, the different views expressed through social media.
- Challenge unjust policies and practices: Social workers have a duty to advocate for people who are unjustly excluded from being involved in shaping the technologies that are used to deliver the services that they need.
- Uphold values and ethical principles: In their use of social media and digital technology, social workers should always act in accordance with the values and principles of the profession and ensure that their online behaviour does not bring social work into disrepute.
- Be trustworthy: Social workers should use digital technologies with people who use services in a way that is honest, reliable and open. If people are required to use certain technologies to access services, social workers should clearly explain why this is the case and offer choices, where possible. People should not be forced to use technology against their will, nor should they be excluded or made ineligible for services because they are not using technology.
- Maintain professional boundaries: Social workers should establish and maintain appropriate boundaries in their use of social media and social networking sites. They should critically reflect on how the information they share online can impact on their professional relationships with people who use services. They should also proactively seek to enhance their professional practice through technology – for instance for continuing professional development, reflection and engagement.
- Ethical challenge: Social workers have a responsibility, individually and collectively, to challenge the purpose and principles behind and use of digital technology found to discriminate or negatively impact people. This can be done collectively, with support, through the professional body, or anonymously through whistleblowing. The starting point for any challenge should be the ethical considerations, alongside evidence of impact of harm
Ethical principles for health, social work and social care organisations
Organisations involved in health and social care as providers, employers, trainers, educators, researchers and/or user-led organisations have an ethical duty to provide an organisational context that enables social workers to develop their digital capabilities. The capabilities, as outlined in the Digital Capabilities Statement include maintaining privacy and confidentiality; eliminating biases in systems and processes; and promoting the involvement of people who use services in systems design and management.
It is recognised that for social workers to fulfil their ethical principles these organisations have corresponding ethical duties. There are existing codes and guidance for statutory health and social care organisations and the third sector, including:
- The Ethics Charter;
- The Charity Digital Code of Practice;
- Local Digital Declaration - Initiated by the UK Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), these are principles for local authorities;
- UK Government Digital Service Standards;
- Principles for Digital Development – for the NGO sector;
- Data Ethics Framework – published by the UK Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport;
- Data management and use: Governance in the 21st century – a joint report by the British Academy and the Royal Society;
- Digital Social Care guidance – published by organisations supporting NHS Digital to improve digital systems of social care providers;
- Provide and maintain an organisational culture that enables social workers to develop and enhance their digital capabilities. This can be achieved through provision of training opportunities, continuing professional development (both self-directed and trainer-led) and supervision. These will enable social workers to gain the requisite skills and knowledge and critically reflect on required social work values.
- Have policies for decision-making on when the social networking sites of people who use services have to be accessed without their consent. In some cases the online accounts of people who use services and their dependents need to be accessed to safeguard them. Organisations should have policies stating the circumstances in which this is permissible, the period of access and the person who authorises access. The responsibility to authorise should be commensurate with the person’s role and level of seniority.
- Underpin business processes with a transparent moral framework about what is ‘right’ and ‘good’ in their use of digital technology to discharge their functions. Over and above what is legally permissible, organisations need to pay attention to what will benefit social workers and people who use (or need) services.
- Seek to eliminate biases in their systems that have caused (or can cause) discrimination of people who have the 'protected characteristics' of the Equality Act 2010: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation.
- Ensure that they are adhering to the relevant statutory responsibilities in data and technology. Organisations have an ethical duty to provide the systems, policies and technologies that enable social workers to discharge their legal duties and supports them to meet professional codes of practice.
- Should be proactive in seeking social work views on the digital systems they provide in the workplace and should have case management systems that are effective, user-friendly, responsive and adaptable.
- Respect the professional responsibilities of social workers to challenge the efficacy of new technology that has been procured. Organisations should have clear policies and procedures for seeking feedback from social workers and people who use services.
- Should ensure that they make reasonable adjustments for staff to develop their digital capabilities to use available technology.
British Association of Social Workers 2018, Social Media. Available: https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/Social%20Media%20Policy.pdf
British Association of Social Workers, 2020, The Code of Ethics for Social Work. Available: https://www.basw.co.uk/about-basw/code-ethics (forthcoming)
Social Work England 2019, , Professional Standards. Available: https://www.socialworkengland.org.uk/media/1640/1227_socialworkengland_standards_prof_standards_final-aw.pd