Saturday, 19 March 2011

Communication strategies.

I've been planing to write about technology and social care for a few weeks now. I'm still formulating that one, but once again something written on the topic (in the Guardian as ever) has caught my attention and forced my hand. It was a call to harness the power of the Internet to aid communication between organisations and service users more of whom the article assumes will be using individual budgets.

The crux of the article is summarised neatly in one paragraph:

Complimenting this is the interaction between organisations and their clients, cementing online communication as superior to other mediums. The modern Internet holds the potential for service providers to reassure people by offering easy, quick and cheap methods of communication. Being able to receive and respond to feedback, offer online advice and allow vulnerable people to apply for help from their homes are now basic communication requirements in an inter-connected world.

As the commenter's (myself included) point out there are many issues around using the Internet, not least the fact that certain groups have greater access to it than others; Though the article suggests that more people, particularly in the older persons bracket are getting online, the phrase 'digital divide' still seems apt. Another issue is that in my experience for social care email is quite possibly the worst form of communication. Mainly because the conversation is one sided making it very hard to make a quick assessment of a situation. Much more preferable is a telephone call allowing you to get much more info in a shorter time as well as judging a persons state from their tone of voice; scared, upset, confused? Not so easy to tell by email. Top of the tree is a face-to-face visit where you can read a whole set of non-verbal cues and see a person in their surroundings.

The one thing the article does get right is that email is a cheap method of communication. I know a few years ago some authorities still visited almost everyone who asked for assistance to carry out a face-to-face assessment, but it became increasingly common to find 'contact centres' being set up where initial assessment was done by telephone, with some being 'screened-out' so never receiving a visit. Undoubtedly this trend was driven by a need to stretch resources so its quite possible that email or self-assessment via a website will prove hard to resist for cash strapped authority's and rather than helping "people feel closer to those who provide key services" it erects yet another barrier between them.

It's not that I'm some kind of Luddite. I believe that the Internet and email does have a valuable role to play in social care however, as usual I have a number of concerns. Just a couple of years ago for instance my authority announced it was phasing out information leaflets; those ones you see in racks on the wall of a GP's surgery waiting area, or just inside the door of a community centre. It reasoned that they were a costly and inefficient way of communicating with people, so save for a couple they were to be only available on the website in PDF format. In part the authority had a case, keeping the leaflets up to date was a costly exercise (also arguably environmentally unfriendly) and there was no control over the numbers of out-of-date leaflets in various locations all with the wrong information and old phone numbers belonging to teams which have since been re-organised at least 5 times. They also decided to pahse-out the leaflets in various languages, again they could well have had a point as in the office we did have a filing cabinet bursting with leaflets in Polish which never saw the light of day due to there being no demand for them. The councils proposal was that instead translations of all the leaflets would be carried out on request.

Clearly, apart from the cash saving, none of this been thought through. What if people don't have Internet access, and will people at possibly the most vulnerable time in their lives manage to navigate the complexities of a councils web site to find the right leaflet, or is it more likely that they'll spot it in a GP's surgery? Yet again an assumption has been made that the service user is an informed consumer just like someone shopping around for the best car insurance deal when often this is not the case. As for the language issue the situation is even worse. The piles of unused leaflets were not the problem, rather they were the symptom of a wholesale failure to engage with minority communities, particularly the most vulnerable among them; making leaflets only available on request (along with pulling funding from the jointly funded post of a sensory services minority outreach worker and cutting funding for neighbourhood advice centres - where face-to face advice and information leaflets both in a range of languages were easily available) would make matters much worse than they already were.

Fortunately I did notice a leaflet recently in a GP's surgery so unless its an out of date one there may well have been a u-turn on the leaflet policy. I hope so as for all it's promised advantages we need to be careful that new technology does not mean people are left behind.


  1. I also commented on that article :) I agree 100%. I think that for some people it will work fantastically (including a lot of older people who are 'connected') - the problem is the people who are excluded from this system are the same people who are always excluded and that is the problem with insisting that everything is done one day. THis is not the opposite of increasing choice - it is imposing a system that favours the most able at the expense of some of the least able.
    Like you I'm no Luddite. I think there is a massive place for technology in social care but nothing can replace face to face discussion and contact and that costs!

  2. Exactly. I feel that in terms of policy developments at the moment the most disadvantaged are being further marginalized. I think this is something most front-line professionals in the field are aware of, but it seems that when they raise concerns they risk being labelled naysayers who are standing in the way of greater choice, and/or are unwilling to relinquish control!

  3. When i read your post, i was happy to see social workers disagree with such funny "calls".

    I live in India and reading "call to harness the power of the Internet to aid communication between organisations and service users" itself is a laugh out. What do they think we do social service for?

    When is the next time they tell us to use ipad to organize our services?