At a time when the UK’s social care system is facing unprecedented capacity challenges, chronic underfunding and severe staffing shortages, what can digital really offer? Can it provide genuine value, and resolve some of the deep-rooted issues or is it merely diverting attention away from the real problems?
In July 2022, the NHS Confederation stated that the social care system was on a cliff edge and urged the government to do more to close the gulf between demand and capacity. In this context, and without a legislative mandate to change or to drive real reform, it is perhaps understandable that some professionals within social care see digital as being a short-term, shiny distraction that takes funds away from the frontline and delivers very little.
Indeed, this is the narrative we often hear across the sector. It illustrates how misunderstood digital is in a social care context, with many seeing it as just a new name for IT or a case management system.
Digital is about people, not technology
Despite the challenges in social care there is hope. Speak to many digital practitioners and they will tell you that digital is:
- Inclusive - it is not ‘just for digital natives’ and can help to relieve pressure on practitioners across the sector.
- Person centred - by putting users at the heart of digital, understanding their needs, researching what they want and co-producing solutions, digital can smooth the issues that are holding people back in their roles and create better outcomes.
- Central to communication and engagement - by enabling better communication with people who draw on social care, partners and stakeholders, digital can enhance transparency and trust.
Rather than focus on technology for technology’s sake, digital solutions support people and practitioners by focusing on their needs. Taking a digital approach will not fix the long-term problems of the sector, but it can provide breathing space for overstretched professionals and departments – giving them more time to focus on relational services that deliver better outcomes for people who draw on social care to live the life they want to lead. By viewing digital in a people-focused way, it’s clear to see that it has much more to offer than a simple distraction.
The only constant is change
Social care departments, along with councils and other parts of the public sector, are not strangers to change and innovation. Most areas of service have been scrutinised multiple times and constantly tweaked, just to keep functioning. But in social care, digital is often either poorly understood or held back because of a shortage of people with the skills or understanding to deliver. It’s often seen as ‘not for us’ and something for other services and organisations.
Instead of viewing digital cautiously as the cause of change, it can in fact, help you be better prepared for it. In social care, there are often delays in bringing in new reforms, and there’s a strong case to be made for making changes now.
This was the approach taken by Chorley Council at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The council capitalised on the automation and digital processes they had already adopted when Universal Credit (UC) benefit claims increased by 100%. By automating parts of the UC claims decision-making process, the council was able to deal with them faster and more efficiently than ever before. And, crucially for citizens, they now receive decisions from the council on the same day they receive their data from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) – eliminating any delays to receiving the financial support they are entitled to.