On 17-18 October 2019, ESN hosted the first meeting of its working group on the digitalisation of social services to explore common challenges and opportunities posed by digitalisation.

Technology plays a multifaceted role in social services. Digital solutions used by social services include artificial intelligence, digital case management systems, assistive technologies and much more. These technological advancements can help improve the delivery of social services and ultimately help to improve the quality of life for those who use them. However, it is also important to understand the challenges digitalisation brings and how to overcome them; such as the cost and accessibility of new technologies or how to ensure privacy and security when sharing data digitally. In this context, ESN launched its working group series on digitalisation to explore these issues.

The ethics and knowledge gap

The group started with an introduction to the digitalisation of social services, a new phenomenon that is not yet fully understood. Dr Taylor-Beswick highlighted one cause of the limited understanding is the lack of training to prepare professionals for the use of technology in their professional and personal lives, and a need to bridge this ‘knowledge gap’. This lack of understanding was also a challenge for ethical issues where there is limited agreement on how to handle issues such as consent and how we obtain it. This becomes an even more difficult issue when sharing data between organisations. A key ethical issue raised to be addressed in future meetings of the group was:

  • When does someone lose capacity to give consent for the sharing of their information?

Digitalisation of case management systems

Policy frameworks were explored during the meeting with a focus on data and case management systems with examples presented from Germany, Sweden and Spain. In some examples, the digitalisation process was supported by government legislation, either through providing support such as funding or through legally binding targets. However, in Sweden the policy framework was seen as a barrier to further digitalisation.

ESN members shared their digitalisation journeys with the working group. Examples from the United Kingdom, Italy and Portugal showcased digital case management systems used by social services and how this shift has benefitted their organisations. Declan MacAllister from the Northern Ireland Social Care Council explained how digitalisation of the ‘Guardian ad Litem’ case management system has enabled caseworkers to increase their case load from 9 to 14 cases per worker.

European standards on data

Having identified what benefits digitalisation can bring, the meeting concluded with a discussion on how to move the digitalisation agenda forward. The group found that the main issues to address are a lack of knowledge and a lack of integration between organisations and departments to facilitate digitalisation. Recommendations to tackle these issues include creating European standards around data collection to help make data transferable, changing training and education for social workers to include more digital education and a need to raise public awareness of digitalisation in general.

The next meeting of the working group will focus on the use of assistive technologies to help people retain their independence in the community