Social work in the information age

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This paper looks how social work is managing in ‘the information age’. Characterised by flows of information through electronic media, the identity of, and work with, service users is divided into abstracted lists or measures, fed into databases, which then directs practice through performance indicators. Drawing on two current research projects, we describe how social workers in their everyday work are overwhelmed by such developments, but there are also opportunities to resist and embrace them.

There has been much debate about how social work and other human services are managing in the information age. What is the place for caring and relational professions when faced with the massive growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs), the rise of the internet and new forms of regulation and scrutiny? The sociologist, Scott Lash characterised the information society as concerned with flow, and the compression of complexity into disembedded fragments. Bits, or more accurately bytes, of information move across multiple contexts, last for a few minutes, are picked up or discarded. There is no legitimating argument, no conceptual framework, no narrative in which it can all make sense. Nigel Parton (forthcoming) talks of the move from ‘social’ to ‘informational’ knowledge in social work:

While traditionally social work has attempted to present a picture of their clients which is both subjective and social via a holistic biographical narrative, the increasing use of the computer data-bases may not allow for the presentation of such identities … Identities are constructed according to the fields that constitute the database so that in striving for clear and objective representations and decision making, the subjectivity and social context of the client can be deconstructed into a variety of lists and factors associated with, in particular, ‘need’ and ‘risk’.

The work is divided up into measurable slices, which may or may not have relevance to the whole, (if there is any longer a whole). If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist. Once fed into the database, such measures come to direct the work through performance indicators. The star ratings and league tables matter most. The recent debate in Community Care in response to John Hemming’s comments on adoption PIs has highlighted such tensions. One wonders whether there are measures for measuring if social workers are efficiently measuring themselves.

Faced with the takeover of league tables and databases, it seems strange that the recent GSCC’s consultation on the role and tasks of social work should promote a version which seems to see such developments as an administrative nuisance.

Social work time and effort should not be diverted to tasks more appropriate to skilled administrators, better IT, and more efficient support and information systems.

We would argue that ICTs and associated performance management have become so central to the way that social work is practised that it is fanciful to assume that they can be separated out as if they are ancillary tasks.

We are working on two related research projects which address issues of information exchange using ICTs and performance management in child welfare. The first is called ‘e-Assessment in Child Welfare’, and is directed by Christopher Hall at Huddersfield University. It is part of the ESRC e-Society Programme and has studied the implementation of the children’s database (now ContactPoint) and the Common Assessment Framework (CAF). This research looks at communications across child welfare agencies. The second project has just started and is concerned with performance management in children’s social care, based at Lancaster University and directed by Sue White. This is part of the ESRC Public Services Programme.

What these research projects have in common is an orientation to the ways in which the everyday practice of professionals is intimately tied up with ICTs and performance measures. This is not to suggest that there was a golden age when social work was not under scrutiny. Richards et al (2005) denote a practice ‘reduced’ to managerialism and bureaucratisation.  However in the current setup, the question is if there is anything left to observe. Our initial answer is yes, somewhere hidden away in the daily coming and going.

The use of ICTs is central to professional practice, especially for social work which is concerned with exchanging information and sharing assessments with other professionals. However, time spent in front of the computer has become excessive. In our research, social workers, particularly those in duty and assessment teams, reported spending on average 80% of their time at the computer. As we note:

Putting in’ (data) must be accomplished alongside and in addition to ‘going out’ (to the see the family). (Peckover et al. forthcoming)

The ICS system, the Common Assessment Framework and children’s database take up a large amount of professional time, which cannot be passed on to ‘skilled administrators’. The range of accountabilities linked to data input requires the social worker to maintain responsibility.  We have heard of social workers on sick leave asking colleagues to input data for them in order to keep to deadlines.

Nor do they appear to save time since, as assessments have become more formalized, they have also increased the information required. The CAF invites the writer to complete 19 boxes, covering a wide range of topics, many of which may not be relevant or proportionate. The network of information systems has been described as:

… a significant broadening of the focus of child social work from protection to welfare and from there to primary and secondary crime prevention (FIPR 2006:5)

The increased use of ICTs also compromises partnership working. Rather than completing a form with a service user and then typing it up, information is input either without the service user seeing it or a series of versions are produced, printed and checked before inputting on the system. Munro (2007:41) goes further by suggesting that the extension of the network of ICTs shifts:

… the balance of power away from families towards state and professional decision-making.

The use of ICTs themselves produce an approach to practice that relies on producing ‘objective’ professional assessments – e.g. identifying needs or assessing risk – at the expense of users’ versions of events.

The development of ICTs inevitably has unintended consequences. They are likely to involve the construction of versions of children and families in particular ways. The structures established in ICTs promote certain information and relegate others. For example we have noted the way in which the CAF requires a de-contextualized style of reporting, with no space to produce histories, (White et al 2007). Often such constraints are not initially obvious, but become the official and accepted ways of reporting and accounting.

Whilst we are at the early stages of our research on performance management, again it appears that professional practice is being constrained, if not directed, by adherence to targets and deadlines. Research has noted unintended consequences of performance management unless indicators are highly sensitive to the particulars of the service involved (van Thiel and Leeuw 2002).  For example, the indicator that children looked after should not move placements more than three times in a year may promote stability in care but will not help children in inappropriate placements. If most core assessments are completed in the required periods, does that mean that they are more accurate? We do not know the extent to which key decisions on children are affected by too strict adherence to performance targets. More generally the issue is whether such PIs measure anything that supports service improvement (Burnham 2004).

However, there is some evidence that something called social work carries on despite the ICTs. Social workers still go out to see families, come back from visits visibly emotionally and cognitively engaged with what is going on in the lives of those families. In their interactions and communications with their peers when they return to the office they are connected with something other than ‘information’.

Many social workers, particularly younger ones, have easily adapted to the IT requirements. They have few problems with IT skills and easily move around systems. They are able to link to children using texting and the internet. There are developments in online counselling (Rafferty and Stewart 2007). Confidentiality is clearly worrying, but in the age of Facebook and MySpace, it is hard to assess the benefits and dangers of new forms of personal disclosure. Furthermore, there is evidence of some subversion. We found CAFs are completed in ways which the guidance does not suggest. Despite the requirement to record needs and strengths, most CAFs tell stories and relate concerns. CAF writers are anxious to describe to others what is worrying them and, if ‘identifying need’ is not enough, they use a wide range of rhetorical and literary skills to make others aware of their concerns. Often these are strong pleas for action, framed by language that draws on their personal authority. – ‘I believe that.. ‘We are extremely worried about…

We are yet to explore the management of performance indicators but we will not be surprised if there are examples of certain manipulations of figures. For example, we have heard said on a number occasions across different sites that the difference between an initial and core assessment is that the latter takes longer than seven days.

In conclusion, we suggest that the use of ICTs and the associated performance management have become a central feature of social work practice. Social work cannot see itself as separate from the information age and will have to adapt. This is clearly a new world and it is not clear how it should be assessed. It is probably reassuring to find that social workers are creative and subversive, and find ways round things. It might be better if they did not have such obstacles to have to manipulate. There are other positives. The ‘Lifting the Burden’ initiative suggests that even the government sees limitations in regulation and control. It is lamentable that the current design-model  for ICTs in social care repeats what Ken Eason, calls the ‘push’ strategy, which is a central government driven, top-down approach, heavily influenced by software vendors. Based on detailed work on the implementation of ICTs in the NHS, Eason shows that this approach leads to inefficient work-arounds and excessive demands on staff time. He argues that local users need to evolve ‘pull’ strategies to adapt the technologies to their own local context (Eason, 2005). It remains to be seen whether social workers and managers are to be given enough ‘wiggle room’ for these to flourish.


  • Burnham. D (2004) ‘On Target?’ Community Care 26/2/04 pp.34-5

  • Eason, K. (2005) Exploiting the potential of the NPfIT: a local design approach, British Journal of Healthcare Computing and Information Management 2005; 22(7): 14–16.

  • Foundation for Information Policy Research (2006) Children’s databases: Safety and Privacy: A Report for the Information Commissioner

  • Lash, S. (2002) Critique of Information, London:Sage

  • Munro, E. (2007) Confidentiality in a Preventive Child Welfare System’, Ethics and Social Welfare 1(1) pp.41-55

  • Parton, N. (forthcoming) ‘Changes in the Form of Knowledge in Social Work: From the ‘Social’ to the ‘Informational’? British Journal of Social Work.

  • Peckover, S., White, S. and Hall, C. (forthcoming) ‘Making and Managing Electronic Children: e-Assessment in Child Welfare’ Information, Communication and Society

  • Rafferty, J. and Steyaert, J. (2007) ‘Social Work in a Digital Society’ in Lymberg, M. and Postle, K. (eds.) Social Work: A companion for learning, London: Sage

  • Richards, S, Ruch G. and Trevithick (2005) ‘Communication Skills in Training for Practice: the Ethical Dilemma for Social Work Education’ Social Work Education 24(4) 409-422)

  • Van Theil,S.and Leeuw, F.(2002) ‘The Performance Paradox in Public Service’  Public Performance and Management Review 25(3) pp.267-281

  • White, S., Peckover, S, and Hall, C. (2007) ‘Descriptive Tyranny of the Common Assessment Framework: Technology, Child Welfare and Professional Practice’. Paper presented to the British Sociological Association, University of East London. 13/4/07


    Dr Christopher Hall is Reader and Dr Sue Peckover is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Childhood Studies, at the University of Huddersfield. Sue White is Professor of Social Work, at the University of Lancaster


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