Similar to what is happening in many professions, the use of digital technologies is increasing in social work practice. From using instant messaging systems to building databases. Even automated decision-making tools. These technologies are helping to transform the social work profession.
Based on a review of the international literature, Steve Jacob and Seima Souissi analyze the recent transformations characterizing social work in the digital age.
The authors first identify the potential of digital tools for social workers. It then discusses the transformation of tasks and the technical and communicational skills needed to adapt to the new work context. Finally, this state of the art looks at a series of challenges from the users' point of view, but also related to the acceptance and appropriation of these tools by the workers.
In this article, the term "social worker" refers to professionals in the social field, social workers or social coaches.
Potential of digital tools for social workers
Studies show that digital technologies in social work promote the availability and sharing of information, as well as compliance with rules and procedures. " This saves time and increases the effectiveness of interventions. In addition, the documentation in information systems of summaries of conversations and actions undertaken with users promotes transparency and traceability of interventions, which facilitates the transfer of cases between professionals. By consulting the virtual file of a user, the interveners have access to all the data and previous interventions.
Sharing information among staff within a facility, but also with other stakeholders involved in the intervention, increases intersectoral collaboration and the effectiveness of services to clients.
In cases of litigation, transparency and traceability also provide protection for stakeholders.
" By providing access to more information about the practices of colleagues in similar situations, digital platforms increase the discretion of social workers. Practitioners thus explain that technology provides greater trust: it allows access to more information and is perceived as more reliable than advice from a colleague.
Digital technologies can also contribute to compliant and consistent decision making in a context of frequent regulatory change. In this sense, technologies can " help reduce uncertainty ". Despite this desire to standardize processes and practices, the authors insist on the need for practitioners to listen and react to the individual needs of users.
Finally, with the automation of requests through self-service solutions, the information provided by users is clearer and easier to analyze thanks to its standardized structure.
Several studies emphasize the possibility for workers to save time by using digital tools to automate routine and time-consuming tasks. This allows workers to focus on more demanding requests and more vulnerable users.
The transformation of the profession and skills of social workers
The use of digital technology implies a reorganization of work. The assumption of tasks by technological tools transforms work routines. Thus, the workers assume new roles and must develop multiple skills in order to meet the current requirements of the profession.
With the integration of digital technologies, practitioners become responsible for the operation of these tools. This requires not only expertise in the field of social work, "but also a good understanding of the technical aspects of the system to evaluate algorithmic decisions and revise them as needed.
The digital transformation of social work also aspires to actively involve and empower users. " Many tasks previously performed by social workers are now performed directly by users via digital platforms. The workers then act as "guides" orienting and assisting the users in the use of digital tools.
Thus, the task of practitioners is no longer focused on problem solving and decision making involving specific professional knowledge. " It is now to provide a service that is largely focused on technical support.
In the past, advocates responded to a wide range of requests through traditional means of communication (mail, telephone or meeting). Messages took different forms: documents prepared by advocates for internal administrative purposes, those used to communicate decisions and formal information about legal rights and obligations, and finally, more informal verbal communication. The studies reveal that " the boundaries between these forms of communication, which were once marked, are blurring with digital tools, as the more direct and informal style used in oral communication is also used to exchange on digital platforms ".
Furthermore, the use of digital tools has the disadvantage of blurring the boundaries between the private and professional spheres and may have repercussions on the work performance and health of workers. Indeed, studies confirm that the accessibility and availability of professionals through these tools often opens the door to new requests for services and increases the number of questions from users.
The instant conversation is an example of a means of communication that gives users direct access to stakeholders. It promotes an informal, close and rapid exchange between the participants. The use of this tool is not without its challenges for practitioners. The interactions, which take the form of immediate and spontaneous responses, are not based on predefined models, such as those used for official correspondence. In addition, officers are concerned about the level of language and tone to be used in these exchanges. In particular, they question the appropriateness in whether or not to use symbols and emoticons or whether to emphasize "we" or "I" when addressing users." Despite the immediacy of exchanges, digital interaction requires caution and careful writing because these are sensitive topics for users who may reuse the speaker's words in other contexts."
The challenges of dematerializing social work
Privacy, data protection, algorithmic biases and technology limitations
Social workers are required to protect the information they process. " However, they have less control over the conditions of information sharing. Digital technologies therefore raise challenges related to professional secrecy, control and protection of information.
Moreover, while they have proven effective in areas such as processing and synthesizing large amounts of data, digital technologies, including those with artificial intelligence (AI), still have significant limitations. " Translating human thinking into mathematical rules is a major challenge for the dematerialization of this field of activity and risks discriminating against users due to algorithmic bias."
Professional values under threat
The role of social workers is defined largely in terms of their ability to provide individual support to clients by exercising discretion. " Guided by a professional ethic, they deploy their practical judgment to ensure a balance between services based on individual case management and the application of complex administrative procedures and legal frameworks. With the advent of digital technologies, this flexibility appears to be diminishing. The ability of practitioners to make individualized decisions is diminished because they are forced to follow the procedures imposed by digital systems.
Virtual interactions also risk creating distance and leading to the commodification of the user. With digital technology, service providers are called upon to deliver services to more impersonal users. They no longer have individual narratives to develop in the course of their encounters with users. Collecting data in the form of a structured list does not allow for a deep and contextualized understanding of cases. It gives access to often reductive information about the users.
"In general, the studies reviewed reveal that the reduction of the role of practitioners and their alienation from digital tools can cause frustration and alter their professional fulfillment. These feelings affect job satisfaction as well as the quality of services and the effectiveness of interventions."
Strategies for bypassing digital tools
Studies show that social workers use digital technologies in varying ways without necessarily complying with instructions, which poses a significant challenge for organizations. " Social workers are often willing to work around the barriers set by digital technologies, so as not to compromise their professional beliefs."
However, " stakeholders appreciate the technology tool when it confirms their views and expectations. They are also willing to reconsider or modify a decision based on the information and suggestions provided by these tools. Their attitude varies according to their general perception of the technology's capabilities and limitations as well as their understanding of the tools' specific operating rules."
These findings illustrate major problems arising from inequalities in the use of technologies according to the experience and personality of the stakeholders, which could be remedied by focusing on the digital mediation processes of these professionals.
The risk of losing the link with the users
" Although there seems to be a consensus on the positive effects of digital technologies for users and practitioners, " conclude Steve Jacob and Seima Souissi, this international literature review highlights several challenges related to the use of digital technologies. " The shift to digital communication requires not only an effort of adaptation on the part of practitioners to ensure that they are well understood by users, but also a great deal of caution in a context where the confidentiality of content is difficult to preserve. The dematerialization of social work also affects the professional values of the workers. " Forced to follow the procedures imposed by digital technologies, they lose the link with the users ".
The transition to digital communication requires not only an effort of adaptation on the part of those involved to ensure that they are well understood by users, but also a great deal of caution in a context where the confidentiality of content is difficult to preserve.
"Because of their digital incompetence, some users are at risk of being denied access to social services. Similarly, digital technologies still have significant limitations that can lead to unreliable decisions. The dematerialization of social work also affects the professional values of social workers. Forced to follow the procedures imposed by digital technologies, they lose the link with users. These effects vary widely depending on the technology used and the degree of automation of tasks.
The articles selected by the authors in this review of international scientific literature focus on various examples of practitioners, such as employment counsellors and social workers working with children and their families, substance abusers or vulnerable or disabled people. Most of the examples of dematerialization described take place in Europe.
In the majority of the articles analyzed in this literature review, the dematerialization of social work is carried out using electronic case management systems. These tools make it possible to gather and centralize data on users, to process the follow-up of cases and, in some cases, to facilitate communication. Recently, more developed technological tools based on artificial intelligence (AI) have begun to be used in Denmark, the United States, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to automate decision-making in the social field.
This article was published by the Revue des politiques sociales et familiales as part of a dossier devoted to the " Dematerialization of public services and access to rights".
1. Steve Jacob, Seima Souissi. "Social workers facing digital transformation: A synthesis of international literature on changing professional mission and skills" Social and Family Policy Review 2022.
2. Social and Family Policy Review: Dematerialization of public services and access to rights, 2022