This section of the Digital Capabilities Statement explains why social workers should develop their digital capabilities. It is based on the Purpose ‘super domain’ of the PCF, which is about ‘Why we do what we do as social workers, our values and ethics, and how we approach our work.’ (BASW, 2018; p. 4).

The Digital Capabilities Statement can support social workers in:

  • Meeting professional standards
  • Promoting carer and user involvement
  • Enhancing access to services
  • Enabling relationship-based practice
  • Connecting people to online groups for support
  • Meeting professional standards

Under Social Work England’s regulatory standards, social workers are required to:

  1. ‘Maintain the trust of people’, which includes maintaining the safety and security of information collected in their work
  2. ‘Work within legal and ethical frameworks’ including understanding their legal obligations under the Data Protection Act 2018
  3. demonstrate regular learning and training to maintain their eligibility to practice

Social workers can use technology to learn and develop, for example through Virtual Communities of Practice (Adodeyin, 2016), a form of online group reflection. CPD can also include e-learning, which is internet-based self-directed and trainer-led programmes delivered in real-time or deposited online for professionals to access at their convenience. Together, these can speed up access to information to improve social workers’ skills and evidence-informed practice (Phelan, 2015).

Social workers should:

  • Understand and appreciate their regulatory responsibilities to have digital skills
  • Develop ‘the ability to use digital technologies and tools for personal learning and development…to support the teaching of learning of self and others’ (NHS, 2018; p. 11)
  • Reflect on their skills, identify gaps and create plans for training and development to address them.

Promoting user and carer rights and involvement

Social workers can use technology to secure the involvement and participation of people who use services in decisions about their care and extend their rights. These include technologies that:

  •  enable people with specific needs - for instance communication and cognitive impairments – to express their needs and state their preferences.
  • enable social workers to share information with people who use services, seek their views, feedback and consent
  • enable people to control their care packages through self-management tools and aids.

Together, these types of digital technologies can empower people who use services and enable social workers fulfil other professional values such as acting with consent, transparency and professional integrity (BASW, 2014).

Examples of using technology to extend user and carer rights

  • Social workers completing and inputting information with the direct involvement of people using services and sharing it with them for feedback and accuracy
  • People who use services being able to record in advance how they should be cared for should they lose capacity to make or communicate decisions
  • Encouraging people with lived experience to document their needs and share them with social workers through digital communications and/or electronic record portals
  • Enabling co-production of care plans
  • Using GDPR-compliant video-conferencing to facilitate the participation of people using services or carers in meetings about care without the need for their physical presence
  • Using apps or video conferencing for children looked after to state their preferences ahead of placement moves or for them to participate in reviews
  • Helping people get equipment, internet connection and training to increase their access to online information, sources of support and rights advice

Social workers should:

  • Learn about technologies and digital functionalities (e.g. social networking platforms and interactive applications) that they can use to promote involvement and participation
  • Ensure that they understand how to use digital technology to share information with people using services and obtain their feedback
  • Understand national and local data protection and information governance policy and guidance

Fulfilling social work values and ethics

Through digital capabilities, social workers can enable anti-oppressive practice. They can support people to access their rights and/or by understanding how technology systems can contribute to inequalities, they can challenge them.

Enhancing access to rights and services, promoting digital inclusion

A range of services and welfare benefits – e.g. Universal Credit - are delivered through digital technologies. To access these benefits and claim their legal rights to welfare support, people are required to use online platforms to register their claim, their eligibility is accessed by automated processes, and they have to manage their claims online. Online information portals are increasingly replacing the provision of face-to-face benefits advice.

Therefore as well as access to the internet, people need the skills to use online services to meet their needs. However ‘Users of the internet can still be digitally excluded because they lack the skills to be able to confidently and safely navigate the digital world.’ (Office for National Statistic, 2019).

Social workers need to understand how digitalisation of services can lead to social exclusion. To support digital inclusion, social workers also need to know about community services through which people can get online (for examples see the Good Things Foundation).

Anti-oppressive practice

Because people are required to use digital technologies in their interactions with services, and alongside the increase in technological capability, public bodies amass data about people. Increasingly, using automated processes - machine learning and algorithms - public bodies seek to harness this data to understand people at the population level or to predict what people with discrete characteristics will do or what they will need (Dencik et al, 2018). Using this data appropriately and correctly can provide an evidence base for different social work interventions and a business case for investment. For example, if machine analysis of large datasets across social care and health shows that the optimum level of enablement support for people discharged from hospital following a fall is 3 months, this is a powerful tool for the profession and local government to argue for additional investment in this area.

 However, there are concerns that ‘the algorithmic systems we use also have the potential to amplify, accentuate and systemise our biases on an unprecedented scale, all the while presenting the appearance of objective, neutral arbiters.’ (Rovatsos et al, 2019; p. 2 emphasis added). Computers draw on already existing information to predict the needs of a group of people or outcomes for them and if the primary data or analysis is incorrect, this increases the likelihood of an incorrect prediction.

For people who uses services who are also some of the marginalised groups in society, incorrect algorithmic predictions can have profoundly negative consequences. It can reinforce existing discriminatory practices, or that automated decision-making process about allocation of services might be biased against them. This can result in exclusion from services that they are legally entitled and, which are critical to their wellbeing. Finally, where automated processes incorrectly calculate that a person might be a risk to others or that they may be ‘vulnerable’, the intervention could lead to control and coercion and denial of their human rights. (This topic is discussed by  Babuta and Oswald (2019) in their examination of biases in policing but their arguments also apply to social work).

Given the above, social workers have an ethical duty to identify any potential unfairness from these systems. Aligned to this is that most people who use services do not always have a choice about whether to consent to the use of their personal (or their family’s) data (although see p. 21 of the ‘Guide to the General Data Protection Regulation’ (Information Commissioner’s Office, 2018)).

To be provided a service, a person must answer questions about their needs. In safeguarding work, agencies are obliged to share any information about people at risk of harm ‘in the public interest’ (SCIE, 2015). The concern about algorithms here is about people giving their data for services or safeguarding which is then ‘analysed’ for a different purpose, without their explicit consent. A third concern is that people who use services, often being marginalised and/or more reliant on public services are more likely to come into contact with services than those who are wealthier. This disparity means that the state may have more knowledge and information about certain groups of people than others. However the Data Protection Act 2018 provides safeguards for improper use of information and social workers should know about this.

Social workers should:

  • Understand the impact on people of increasing dominance of digital access to services and entitlements and how to support and advocate for them in this changing service landscape
  • Ensure accuracy of information on systems and know the processes for changing errors on peoples’ electronic records
  • Advise people who use services about their rights under data protection law and regulations

Enabling relationship-based practice

People who use services expect to connect to their social workers through the different electronic means that they use routinely – for instance emails, Social Networking Sites (SNS) such as WhatsApp, group text messages and other online platforms.

Social workers can use these digital technologies in relationship-building with people who use services when they start working with them by using secure email to introduce themselves or even sending pictures of themselves at the start of their engagement. Social workers’ proficiency in using these applications are pre-requisites for maintaining ongoing professional relationships with people using services. For example, social workers can use technology to respond quickly to questions and to signpost people to online sites with relevant information to make informed choices.

However, because this communication will be within a work context, social workers should also consider the need to respect appropriate boundaries and professional codes and ethics (Health and Care Professions Council, 2018). Furthermore, the starting position should be how technology can assist and enhance the personal relationships with people who use services instead of replacing regular face-to-face contact.

Social workers should:

  • Be knowledgeable and capable in using secure digital technology for communicating and interacting with people using services and their carers
  • Offer choice to people using services about their preferred technology for communicating. This requires social workers to have awareness and clarity of the security requirements that relate to the means of sharing information
  • Reflect on how they can draw on technology to enable them to be time-efficient to gain richer and meaningful understanding of people’s life situations - to know and understand them

Connecting people to online groups for support

Social workers can facilitate the use of digital technology to connect people using services to new online groups for socialising and/or support for their needs.

Online groups can reduce the feeling of loneliness and strengthen social bonds because ‘The same layers of relationships that are found in offline social networks are usually present in online platforms, and are defined by the same frequencies of interaction’ (Castillo De Mesa et al, 2019; p. 202).

Social Networking Sites (SNS) can be useful sources of support for people with specific needs. In a review of the literature, Somerville and Brady (2019) found that young people can experience improvements in their mental health – for example reductions in self-harming, suicide and psychosis – by using SNS to connect to support groups. This suggests that social workers can even use online groups for interventions because people can seek support from people with similar lived experiences. However, social workers should note that online groups should complement and not substitute offline support. They should also be proposed with the full consent of the person using the service, following employer guidelines and drawing on the social worker’s professional judgement. Where possible social workers should also ensure that all recommended online services or apps have been quality assured.

Social workers should:

  • Know about the range of networks and apps used by self-advocacy groups and understand how to use them
  • Be able to evaluate how people using services can draw on support from online groups and the benefits and potential drawbacks of these
  • Discuss appropriate online support groups with people using services and assist them to engage with them, if required