COVID-19 has forced social care to make more use of digital technology which has lead to improved access to services, particularly for ‘hard to reach’ groups.
A new report from the Public Services Committee found that social care decisions which before the pandemic would take months, were made in minutes.
Social workers have had to completely overhaul the way they engage with children and families.
New ways to deliver services have flourished and digital technology has been used more widely, and more successfully, than ever before.
The committee, set up by the House of Lords in February 2020 to learn lessons from the challenge of COVID-19, says it has seen some great examples of how digital technology has improved social care.
Social workers reported that using platforms such as WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams has allowed connections with some children that were not there before.
It also helped multidisciplinary working. But digital technologies also bring risks, the committee heard.
Ryan Wise, a qualified social worker, ran a series of focus groups of frontline social workers with the Centre for Public Impact.
He told the committee: “We should also not forget that those relationships, those sensory moments with people – that sense of feeling, touching, being in the moment – tell us a whole lot about what is going on.”
Changing Lives, a charity working with vulnerable adults, said its staff’s way of working with service users had “changed radically as a result of COVID-19.”
Many addiction recovery services, such as group therapy and outreach, were now offered online.
Technology gave service users more ways to engage with addiction services leading to more engagement during the first lockdown.
Changing Lives reported “a reduction in relapse and, in some services, fewer drug-related deaths” as a result.
The committee also heard how digital technology has given frontline workers in drug and alcohol treatment services greater freedom to make decisions.
Nathan Dick of Revolving Doors described how this “reduction in red tape” had given frontline workers more scope to innovate and build trust with users.
But Richard Sloggett of Policy Exchange cautioned that the “real acceleration” in the use of digital technologies in front line services would need to be secured “on a longer-term, more sustainable basis”.
It was important to address the “real gap in the expertise and ability of the public sector on digital,” he said.
The committee was warned that relying too heavily on technology could widen inequality as deprived communities often have no access to digital technologies.
The Children’s Commission said: “About 700,000 children do not have access to an iPad or a piece of tech. And about 60,000 of them do not have broadband.”
The report recommends that advances in digital technology should continue to be used to increase access to public services, particularly for hard-to-reach groups.
But the advances must be applied “intelligently” it adds. And online services should never replace face-to-face services if that disadvantages the service user.
The report, which the committee says is a “starting point” for learning the lessons of COVID-19, calls for service users to be involved in the design and delivery of public services.
It recommends the Government should focus on improving the digital skills of the public service workforce, and improving digital access and skills for those members of the population at risk of digital exclusion.