Social work sector must embrace technology or risk being ‘left behind’, says BASW chief

Initiative to improve social workers’ digital skills will establish new set of digital capabilities

Photo: fgnopporn/Fotolia

Story updated 17 June 

Social workers must become more confident using technology or risk being “left behind” other sectors, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has warned.

Following the launch of a project to improve practitioners’ digital skills and investigate how they can be better supported to work with digital tools, Ruth Allen said there was “a big gap” in understanding that had to be addressed by the profession.

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“Digital knowledge and skills are essential to current and future social work. They are not an optional add-on but are a core part of responding to people’s lives and are relevant across our sector.

“However, at present, there is a big gap in understanding the capabilities that social workers have and need, and also their opportunity to develop capability and confidence in the digital world as it is emerging.”

Allen added that there was “a lot of anxiety” around the use of technology within the sector and said the project would aim to make practitioners have a “much more positive view” about digital.

Working with existing frameworks

BASW, the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) have been commissioned by Health Education England (HEE) to carry out the work, whose main priority is to establish a list of digital capabilities to support social work practice.

Project manager and SCIE associate Iris Steen said existing frameworks gave “little to no reference” to digital skills and capabilities.

The adults’ knowledge and skills statement (KSS) says practitioners “must embrace information, data and technology appropriate to their role”, while there is no reference in the KSS for children’s practitioners.

Meanwhile, the professional capabilities framework (PCF) asks all social workers to have “knowledge, understanding and application of the opportunities and risks of new technologies, digital resources, online communications, virtual environments and social media”; the level of knowledge required depending on the practitioner’s level of experience and seniority.

“This project is about exploring what are those core competencies and how can they be built in to the existing and developing frameworks for social workers training, development, practise and regulation,” Steen explained.

Project discussion areas:

  • use of technology, both existing and emerging
  • use of data in practise
  • electronic recording systems
  • social media and how to use it at work

The project is part of a wider Building a Digital Ready Workforce (BDRW) programme that will run until March 2020. Its aim is to help professionals in health and social care deliver the outcomes of their role “quicker, easier, safer and at a higher level of quality”.

Getting input from social workers

Both children’s and adults’ social work will be covered  by the initiative, while an advisory group of social workers, educators and service users will feed into the project.

A literature review to inform the project is already underway and is focused on effective use of data, digital technology and social networks. But the project is aiming to involve frontline professionals by asking them for feedback on how they use technology and what could be done to support them using technology in their roles.

On 14 June, BASW and SCIE launched a survey of social workers on digital capabilities to inform the project.

“We will be asking people about their experiences to date, their learning needs, and their learning journey.

“We want to find out from people what they already know, what their educational needs are, what their workplace needs are. This will include professionals from different levels, so people in direct practice, people who are new to practice and people who are supervising managing or leading”.



She added BASW would also help with hosting a consultation and arranging involvement activities.

Key debates around technology and social media  

Efforts to clarify how social workers should use technology and digital tools in the workplace follow a number of recent debates exploring ambiguities around new practices being employed by councils.

A freedom of information request by Community Care, which was answers by 132 local authorities in England, found that just six councils gave guidance around the surveillance of service user social media profiles.

Meanwhile, a survey produced by our journalists revealed that social workers had llittle understanding and confidence in how social media could be used in safeguarding.

Another area that has sparked concern is councils’ use of artificial intelligence to identify support needs.

Hackney council announced last year that it was using AI to help support families earlier, in some cases even before they meet any statutory agency, to ease future pressures.

However, this practice was criticised by academics, who pointed out the potential ethical issues of using the technology, saying the practice was “fraught with risks”.

The What Works Centre has since launched a campaign to research projects relating to machine learning and children’s social care.

Project outcomes

A “suite of resources”, including a briefing, ethical guidance, e-learning resources, a network of digital champions for the sector and a profile-raising campaign, will be produced for practitioners.

It is hoped that these will support professionals and address weaknesses in practice; this, Allen said, would involve a “mixture of everything”.

“We know that there are lots of issues around use of electronic recording systems, which are a problem for people because they are often not very user friendly, but clunky.

“We also need to look at how social workers can understand the scope of digital technologies that might be most useful to service users and to them as workers. For example, what apps or technological solutions are out there already that could improve practice.”

Ensuring that social workers know how to protect themselves from exposure when using social media was another area flagged as needed strengthening by Allen.

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4 Responses to Social work sector must embrace technology or risk being ‘left behind’, says BASW chief

  1. Kate June 6, 2019 at 7:33 pm #

    Embracing technology in our LA has meant sending more and more spreadsheets for SWs to complete for audit purposes! I have been qualified for almost 2 years, and even in that short period of time have felt more and more pressure driven by audits and tick box exercises. I joined the profession to work with children and families, having spent 20 years working as a secretary. Found myself in a job where I am yet again tied to my desk for a large proportion of the day. Love the social work, hate the paperwork.

  2. Kathleen June 7, 2019 at 11:30 am #

    It would be interesting to do a comparison study between recent graduates and those who completed the European Computer Driving License as part of their training. Graduates with the ECDL had extensive computer training, particularly with the Microsoft suite of Word, Power point & Excel

  3. Beth June 7, 2019 at 1:47 pm #

    Think it’s about time I ceased paying BASW £20 plus! What an insult!

    • ruth allen June 7, 2019 at 5:49 pm #

      Hi Beth – do you want to clarify the issue? Would be helpful to know. Please bear in mind that this is a news article by comm care not a position piece from BASW!