Forget hiking back and forth from visit to office, office to visit, Nottinghamshire County Council has a different vision for the future routine of social workers that is more visit to coffee shop, coffee shop to visit.
For the past year the council has been equipping its social workers with Apple iPads so that they can do their virtual paperwork on the go.
Caroline, a member of the county’s children and families assessment team, is one of the 100 social workers who has been testing out the new approach as part of the pilot project.
It has, she says, resulted in big changes in the way she works.
“It just makes it much more time efficient. A lot of the time after a visit I would have to drive back to base for 30 minutes while waiting for the next visit. Now I can do work on the iPad without having to travel backwards and forwards.”
The time savings rack up she says, especially when your work involves doing assessment over a large area, and help make caseloads more manageable.
“For example, our office base is Arnold in Nottingham and I might have a visit in Sutton-in-Ashfield, which is about 12 miles away,” she says.
“Instead of having to go back to the office, I can stay in the area, sit and do my work, and then do another visit close to there without traveling a half an hour journey back to the office.”
“Sometimes I’ve got a drink and sit in the car, sometimes I go to a library or coffee shop. We’ve also got links with children’s centres so sometimes I will go to them and ask if I can sit in their office and use it.”
That iPads are lighter, more compact and have a longer battery life than laptops is another boon. “You can get them out whenever you need to, because they are light and easy to carry.”
Online and offline
Before trying out iPads, Nottinghamshire social workers had access to laptops and other portable devices that promised to let them do casework remotely but struggled to deliver on that promise.
“Traditionally, we’ve provided access via 3G-connected devices and the problem with that is that once the social workers don’t have connectivity they lose access to all the relevant information,” says Adam Crevald, the ICT group manager who oversees the tech behind the iPads-for-social-workers pilot.
“So what we were finding was that the first time a social worker couldn’t get access was pretty much the last time they would use the device or rely on the device to carry out the job.”
Nottinghamshire’s solution, devised with help from Vodafone and app developer TotalMobile, sidesteps the need for constant internet access.
Prior to visits it downloads the case information that the social worker needs so that it is available even without an internet connection.
It also allows social workers to complete their assessments or other case work offline. Then, once the iPad regains a 3G or Wi-Fi connection, automatically uploads the data to the office systems and imports it into the council’s case management system.
Security and safeguarding
Having case notes on the tablet does, of course, raise concerns about how secure the confidential information held on the iPad is.
Crevald says such concerns is why the project opted to use iPads, a move that met a fair amount of criticism from the local press which felt the council should have bought cheaper non-Apple tablets such as those that run Google’s Android operating system.
The decision, explains Crevald, was down to two things.
First, he says, iPads have “quite strong security” built in and, second, that back when the project started the Apple’s devices were the only tablets that conformed to the government’s data security standards, the Public Services Network code.
But, he says, technology moves on and the council has made sure that its system works on other devices. “The product is device agnostic,” says Crevald.
As a result the council is now about to start supplying social workers with Windows 8 tablets because these now comply with the government’s security code.
“Android is still a challenge, there are some specific devices like the high-end Samsung devices that do conform but they’re more expensive than the Apple,” he says, adding that around half of the iPads being used by social workers were provided free of charge by Vodafone.
Cost matters because Nottinghamshire sees the iPads-for-social-workers pilot as a part of its efforts to make services more efficient with potential savings to be made in mileage expenses being the most obvious potential saving.
But the security measures don’t stop with the technology.
The app Nottinghamshire has created requires multiple passwords to work and social workers need to think about when and where to use it, not least by making sure the app is closed during visits and ensuring people can’t see what they are doing when working in public places.
“I am always aware where I choose somewhere to work that there aren’t people looking over you but, to be fair, I’ve got an iPad Mini so you’ll have to be quite close to me to see what I’m doing,” says Caroline.
“Also when you are typing on it you can only see the typing screen so you can’t see anybody’s details, so that allows you to type text without people seeing personal details which is really helpful.”
Designed for and by social workers
When security was a key consideration, Crevald says the app has very much been designed in collaboration with frontline social workers.
“From a technology perspective we were able to do a proof of concept within about three months, however it’s not just about us in ICT delivering technology and going ‘there you go, like it or lump it’,” he says.
“It is about working with the social workers in their working practices and workflow to tailor it to the way they work.
“It would be easy for us just to replicate the office environment on a mobile device, however what the social workers were telling us is that they actually work in a different way.”
One example is the order in which assessment forms are filled out. Rather than following the format of the systems back in the office, the app has been designed to fit with the workflow of social workers when they are out on visits.
Nonetheless there have been some blips, says Caroline.
“Those were about people getting used to it and making errors. Things like making sure you save everything and where it gets sent to but we have a support team we can contact and say I think I’ve made a bit of a mistake or an error that’s uploaded so it’s always managed.”
Beyond case notes
The move to iPads has also brought other benefits beyond just the ability to complete assessments outside the office.
“I’ve used it for doing work with children,” says Caroline. “Using the graphics, the paintbox, for them to put across their views and feelings.
“Children and young people are into technology and sometimes it can open up a discussion and if they don’t want to speak about something they can type it without feeling uncomfortable about having that dialogue. We use it quite a lot for getting children’s thoughts and feelings.”
The new technology also means she doesn’t have to keep calling the office to update them on her movements.
“If I’ve gone to a visit and changed my plans I can put it to show that, to say that I tried to visit a person but they weren’t in so I’m now going to visit this place and my manager can look at that at any time without me having to ring in,” she says.
So would Caroline want to go back to pen and paper again?
“No, no. I think as things progress we can manage a lot of work on the iPad. I think now it’s about moving forward and thinking about what else we can do on it,” she says.