Technology, Social Media and Social Services – Finding new ways to ‘help’

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I have some across lots of discussions and debates about ways of using social media and new technologies and interactions to ‘help’ social services become more effective. Most of it seems to revolve around building online directories and databases of micro providers and services that are available which build on so-called community capacity to improve the way that personal budgets can or might work.

At the risk of sounding overly cynical there is nothing ‘innovative’ in my mind about building a directory of services.  To me, this is not a particularly innovative way to use ‘technology’ in social services.  It taking a very obvious and well-trodden route to using new technologies. Providing directories while being useful to a certain group of people again exacerbates the isolation of those who are not party to or able to use them.  Being innovative isn’t always necessary to be helpful but it is very important that new ideas are focussed so we don’t just end up with increasingly specialised, localised directories that might have more ‘interactive’ features and feedback, look more ‘user led’ and compatible with the buzz words of social media but in the end they are brushing the surface of possibilities.

It feels more and more as if that there is a growing division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ as far as personal budgets have been extended and does absolutely nothing to address or use technologies to address those who reside continually in the ‘have not’ section.

While at work, we labour with database systems that have clearly been developed through conversations between commissioners and software companies without any recourse to frontline practitioners, nice new provider directories are being tinkered around with while the fundamental foundations of the systems we work with remain resolutely inaccessible.

I’ve had a few ideas myself and whilst I lack the technological expertise to see any of these ideas to fruition, this is a kind of ‘wish list’ of the sorts of things I’d like to see.  I’m under no illusion that these are ‘new’ ideas. I am sure similar things already exist in some form but they are things I’d like to see pan out in the longer run. Things I’d like to use at work.

I’d like to see more creativity in the use of technologies to assist with decision making for adults who have some kind of cognitive deficit. I’m a great fan of the ‘tablet’ and ‘touch screen’ model as I think it is intuitively an easier interface to understand.  When I see people instinctively reach out to touch the screen of my Kindle (which isn’t touchscreen!) I realise that we are becoming conditioned to seek the easiest input methods which are about touching a screen and speaking into a microphone and perhaps writing on a tablet. Now, voice recognition has improved, I’m yet to come across very successful handwriting recognition (possibly because I have scrawly almost illegible handwriting) but there is potential there. In the meantime, pictures and touchscreens seem like a good way to go.

Using pictures/sounds/music it can draw on multi-media ‘shows’ and explanations of different options – moving beyond the ‘written word’. Providing documentation in aural form or in pictorial/moving form rather than reams of leaflets. Having recordings of familiar voices or pictures of familiar faces might help to reassure. I’m a great fan of telecare in general with the proviso of always being mindful that the human contact is not replaced but in days where human contact is sparsely provisioned anyway, it may be something that can be experimented with.

Why not a YouTube type video to explain how services can be chosen instead of reams of ‘easy read’ leaflets which really aren’t remotely ‘easy read’. Instead of flooding people with lists of providers (which, while good for some ignores those who are restricted in terms of capacity and carers to choose ‘freely’ the types of services they garner) why not explain and expound in different ways the ways that services can work?

Why not explain providers in terms of what they can actually provide and what purpose they serve rather than creating directories that are meant for people with a good understanding of what they want and need?

I was in a day centre last week and there was a seemingly unused Wii. I wonder if he Kinect might be a better project to develop some type of interactive play, exercise and work as it doesn’t need a controller at all and uses the more innovative way of body movement.  Using participatory games with larger screens in company can provide different stimuli. I know why games developers  haven’t tackled directly the ‘older’ market with games that might otherwise reside in memories but why not repackage old school yard games and board games with Kinects and iPads? It may be a good way to introduce the use of these new technologies in a ‘friendly’ manner which may then see them used in other wider ways – such as directories or personalised information sources. Using YouTube video channels for personally designed ‘reminiscence’ therapies could personalise the delivery of memories and digitise memory boxes where items are not there to build up the frames of someone’s life and people aren’t there to fill in the gaps.

There are many ‘dating site’ type services that match people and organisations. Volunteers to voluntary groups etc. How about a type of match between schools and residential homes? I know it’s something that’s sometimes done locally where I work and having spoken to both providers and some of the kids who go in, they seem to enjoy it and it can change and break expectations – each of the other.  I

We talk of social media a lot and often it is used to provide ‘recommendations’ to particular services through these databases. Perhaps more user and carer led general recommendations can be collated. Crowd source an ‘introduction’ to social services provisions by those currently using the service.

Ask ‘what do you wish you’d known?’ ‘what do you wish someone had told you?’ and while taking out all the obviously libellous stuff, a local authority must be brave enough to leave in the criticisms. We learn through complains and criticisms and it can take a lot of guts (or anger) to make a complaint or to criticism and that MUST be respected by the service and the individuals at fault and used as a means of improvement.

I don’t want to see local authorities ‘whitewash’ problems in order to gain sparkling OFSTED or CQC inspections. It sullies the whole process and makes the inspections worthless. Regulation should be less authoritarian and more about actually making improvements and making things better for the end user – not about allowing local authorities to produce the ‘right’ results while poor practice is brushed away from the sight of the inspectors.

But back to my point about using social media to crowdsource – it is important that social media ALONE is not used as an ‘answer’. Crowd sourcing must be honest but it must also be broader than putting out an ‘internet consultation’ and having a Twitter account or blog. There must be pounding of the streets too to engage those who are not able to use digital means to put their points across. There should be knocking at doors and face to face discussions – not leaflets, not inaccessible (for some) groups.

Talking about crowdsourcing though, there’s a much better and perhaps more obvious way it can be used and certainly isn’t being used at the moment and that’s to engage other social workers and professionals into putting together more information and useful methods of practice for ourselves. Sure, it needs time but we remain reliant on organisations to provide ‘guidance’ such as SCIE (who do provide fantastic resources) and BASW and the College of Social Work but why none of these organisations who purport to exist to help social work and social care practice actually engage more directly and use social media and open access blogs/discussion groups/forums/micro blogging etc to engage with currently practicing social workers is completely beyond me.

I’ve become very interested in open access education and resources and feel there is great scope for professional engagement and information to build its own resources and information together with users and carers, together with other professionals but there has to be a push for social workers to see the benefit of sharing and finding appropriate ways to share the information that we learn every day.

I have other ideas which will come in different posts  but I’d be interested in hearing other peoples’ ideas for uses of ‘technology’ in the very broadest sense and how they can develop to help the broadest range of people we see in social services – particularly those who are less able to look information up in various fancy online directories.

Big Society

So here we have the phrase that Cameron wanted to become a catchphrase during the election but somehow got lost possibly due to public indifference. However, now it’s back to bite.

Cameron launched his ‘Big Society’ initiative a couple of days ago. He uses all the right language of course. It is about a devolution of power and influence over local matters from central government to smaller communities.

As he said in  his speech in Liverpool

‘The big society … is about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street,”

Sounds great so far. As for the details as well as giving some examples of this ‘Big Society’ in action, for example, people in Cumbria buying their own local pub or Liverpudlians opening up some museum services with volunteers.

The idea seems to be to open up the spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism. Money from ‘dormant bank accounts’ will be used to fund some of these projects and plans.

I was sceptical during the election campaign and I remain sceptical now.

Firstly, I am a great fan of voluntary work and voluntary services. I have been directly involved in many voluntary projects and personally developed my own career extensively based on experience as a volunteer. I love it.

But, and this is a big but, I was able to volunteer as my personal financial circumstances at that period of time allowed it. I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to self-fund the work I did as a volunteer.

Is volunteering a luxury then? Not necessarily – those were my own personal circumstances but I am well aware of many many people who manage to work full-time/run a household and find time to input directly into voluntary services. Maybe it’s just me that wouldn’t have the time and energy to do so but I wonder if there is a whiff of middle class morality about it all. Not in all cases, but the example of the pub being bought out by locals certainly seems to pitch the community at a certain level of income.

My other concern is one that relates both to the area I work in and the area I live in. This is as inner-city as it gets. There are some very strong community groups who could easily gain ground both by being active in particular pockets and having the time to invest in the structures of this new ‘big society’ programme that would perhaps, disadvantage minority groups living in areas where there are large homogenous majority communities.

The other concerns relate to reliance on the third sector – this point has been raised in The Guardian . It’s obvious why the government would like to place hopes in the voluntary sector. Often voluntary groups can be ‘closer to the ground’ but do they have more authority that local government? It might be a cheaper way to run things. Currently – and I’m referring to the sectors I am personally aware of – the local authority might well commission local charities to do pieces of work for them or provide services – the Alzheimer’s Society provide day centre support and carers groups for example and receive funding from the local authority. Local authorities are cutting down on spending and the money may come from these ‘big society’ projects from central government funding – oops, I mean ‘dormant bank accounts’ (by the way, is there REALLY that much money in these dormant bank accounts… ).

To the charitable sector, the funding may be cut from one source to be granted at another. Who is better placed to decide which local services are needed or required and what will be the bid process for these charities? The reason I am concerned is that I’ve seen some rather bogus organisations with charitable status – particularly religious groups to be honest. That concerns me.

I don’t want to be cynical about all these wonderful goals. I am a great fan of community work and working within communities. I am just concerned that some of the minority sectors and opinions might be missed in a bidding process for funding for grand ideas.

I really want to be proved wrong though.

It is a question of whether the conception of ‘Big Society’ will work as well in Tower Hamlets as in Tunbridge Wells?  Hopefully the Liverpool pilot will be the proof of the pudding..

Counting Votes

{{nrm|Êlections au mais d'Octobre 2008, Jèrri}}
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One year, I counted votes at an election. The local authority asks for volunteers from among their employees and so I volunteered to work as a counter. We had the option of working at a polling station but I rather preferred having the day off on the Friday rather than sitting in a polling station all day.

We were put into small counting teams with a senior who had experience of counting before and we were allocated a ‘ward’ as it was a local council election and attended a short training session to inform us about how the count would proceed, what to expect and various other issues.

On arriving at the counting centre, we donned the lovely local authority t-shirts we were given, in a colour bright enough to render them useless for anything except sleeping in in the future!

We didn’t really talk during the vote. There was a pile for spoilt ballots which was checked later by a more senior official sometimes with candidates. Some of the spoilt ballots were obvious (the ones with swear words, for example, or little pictures), some less so. Some people had clearly completely misunderstood what they were supposed to do with a ballot paper!

While we were counting, the candidates and their representatives circled the tables like vultures. I had been allocated the table of the Leader of the Council and it was a close fight so there was a lot of interest. Sometimes it felt like the politicians were almost trying to distract us!

We noticed some of the other ‘tables’ leaving as the night drew on. After our ‘ward’ was counted we were allowed to leave but ours was running very close.

At the first ‘result’ there were a handful of votes in it so we were asked to recount. And then asked to recount again.

At the third time, a result was allowed as there had been no changes in the recount process. This was quite big news as the leader lost his seat. We were the last ‘ward’ to leave.

I always wanted to volunteer again because I rather enjoyed being a part of the democratic process in this way but as time has passed, the willingness of my managers to allow me the time off has faded. I always say ‘next time.. ‘ but it’s always good to have an insight into different experiences.

It’s the same reason that although it’s a bit of a drag to get to my polling station, I still opt to go rather than register a postal vote. I quite like the process of going in and voting in a booth. It feels more of an event.

And this year, after I cast my vote, I’ll spare a few thoughts to those staying up all night to count the votes. Especially in marginal constituencies!

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I pondered at work yesterday if it was classed as ‘sad’ that I had taken Friday off work specifically because I wanted to stay up on Thursday all night to watch the the election result and follow the immediate aftermath on the TV on Friday.

Maybe I should have just said I wanted a long weekend…

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It came up as we discussed some more reconfiguration plans during a team meeting and there were definite jitters in the room about what the service might look like and how it might catch with a different government.  What’s definite though is that what kind of government we have, there will be more changes ahead.


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Personal Care at Home Bill

The Bill claiming to bring in the promised free home care for those with critical needs was introduced to parliament yesterday. There is a lengthy ‘impact assessment’ available at the Department of Health website that I don’t have time to trawl through before going to work this morning.

A brief perusal confirmed that the ‘critical’ needs to be included that will lead to the ‘free’ care will be restricted, understandably in light of the name of the legislation to ‘personal care’.

According to the document above, personal care includes

Physical assistance and prompting in relation to

-eating and drinking


-washing or bathing


-oral care

-care of skin, nails and hair

And to be eligible, as I read it anyway, there would need to be four aspects that would lie within the ‘critical’ band.

This obviously reduces the ‘access’ to the ‘free’ funding. I use inverted commas for the ‘free’ aspect as obviously there will be a payment through taxation and again, some local authorities may be attracting a higher cost than others – I am thinking perhaps of some traditional ‘retirement’ towns that perhaps might have a heavier burden on them than other districts.

The other concern about the legislation is that in an interview with The Times yesterday with Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, who suggested that money to pay for the Personal Care at Home Bill will be diverted from funds for research into cancers and dementia.

This is hardly a popular move and one I can see the government fast back-tracking on but it goes to show how little consideration has been spent on these plans to reduce charges for homecare.

There is also to be a further focus on re-enablement and rehabilitation which, it is hoped, would reduce the ongoing care costs as it would reduce the need for interventions when more access to recovery is envisaged. This is definitely a positive outcome – I have long thought that there has been too little focus on lower level needs that progress into much higher needs if not addressed at the time. I could run off countless ‘scare’ stories about trying to arrange for some kind of rehab input when someone is discharged from hospital but they would probably not be believed. All I can say is that if it is to get better, that is no bad thing.

I still remain sceptical though. It seems like a sticking plaster to a haemorrage of a problem that noone seems to want to think through and that social care is being used as a toy to tempt voters terrified of sacrificing their childrens’ inheritance due to some kind of ‘entitlement’ to ‘things for free’ that has been created.

Whether that is the Tories and their hotchpotch policy of providing ‘insurance’ against the cost of residential care that no sensible person would take up – or the haphazard ‘free personal care for all with 4 or more critical banded needs under FACS’ that Labour are now proposing.

Personally, I can’t see the legislation being passed in the lifetime of this Parliament anyway so it is something of a moot point but if there is to be a more creative focus on re-enablement coming out of the debate, that is definitely A Good Thing.

I hope to spend a little more time reading through the proposals at length to give a slightly more cognisant appraisal over the next few days!

Tories’ Insurance Plan

I like to follow the news and so, yesterday, when I heard about the plan proposed by the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne to allow those approaching 65 to purchase a type of insurance policy for roughly £8000 to cover future cost of nursing or residential home fees, the idea actually baffled me.

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Sure, it served it’s purpose and made lots of headlines about the stretched middle classes who resent that they have pay for services that they receive in later life, even if it means selling their own home to do so.  But the proposal made me wonder how much Osborne and the Conservative Party actually know about the current system and the changes that the ‘Putting People First’ agenda is pushing or whether (which I suspect is the answer) they are chasing cheap headlines.

I will be clear and say that as a home-owner, there is no way on earth I would recommend anyone taking out this insurance at 65. The likelihood of going into ‘care’ is minute. Some newspapers quoted the figure but the current policy is to (quite rightly) keep care in the home as much as is possible. Those who have underlying health conditions that might indicate a propensity to need this  type of care would be excluded from the ‘insurance scheme’.

I suppose I come from a position of seeing how much care costs to the local authorities who fund it and thinking that if someone can pay for their own care, there is no reason that they shouldn’t, however I know that is not the opinion of the majority of the Great British Public and it is politically expedient to provide a ‘solution’ to this issue for the voters.

As pointed out in the Independent, the option of taking insurance against long-term care already exists in the private sector insurance market so presenting this as a public policy also makes little sense.

As with all policies though, the devil is often in the detail rather than the grand posturing designed to capture the attention of the media – just as Labour’s ‘free care for those with highest needs’ did last week.

I am sceptical of both plans to be honest, especially as the consultation period is still open for the Green Paper on the funding of Adult Care. I will await the results of that consultation although it’s looking increasingly likely there will be a change of government next year so we might be back to the beginning again..


I am a bit down today for a few reasons  but most selfishly because I seem to have developed a sore throat which is affecting my mental well-being. Not significantly to be honest but less than fully perky!

But nothing really creates more of a downer than the election of two BNP MEPs in the UK. To those lucky enough not to know the details, the British National Party is a far right blatantly racist party running on, well, there’s no need to explain the manifesto. It’s pretty clear-cut. And something I honestly thought would never happen here – in that delightful head-in-the-sand kind of way that I try to think positively.

I expect part of the reason is the malaise of the political class. Trust and confidence have been lost in the ‘system’. The growth of a class of ‘career politicians’ who are desperately detached from reality seems to have heightened the gap between the government and the governed and while details of the expense claims being published are for the most part inconsequential – after all – I understand that UK parliamentarians are not as well compensated for their time and work as those in other countries – it was more that there was a perceived ‘entitlement’ to such different treatment.

If MPs had been brave enough to just vote themselves a clear-cut pay increase years ago instead of trying to fiddle every last penny from a claims system that is not fit for purpose, it would not have been so damaging over the longer term.

I am far from a political pundit but I don’t expect Brown to last much longer. Partly though, the reason for the election of the extremist parties was the very small turnout in the elections and the amount of abstentions/non-votes.

I am actually embarrassed to think that the UK will be represented by unreconstructed racists and xenophobes.