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On 11 September I spoke at the 2023 Information Services Management Conference of the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) in the United States. In front of an audience of more than 1,000 delegates from federal and state government human services and the international ICT industry, I participated in a debate with Fariborz Pakseresht, Director at Oregon Department of Human Services, and Tracy Wareing, APHSA’s CEO.

I confess to having been uncertain as to whether the concerns of Europeans about growing inequalities, immigration and the digital gap, and our policy debates on social services outcomes, new models of care and co-production would resonate across the pond. As I was preparing for the session, I wondered whether these would translate in the different political environment and social welfare systems in today’s America.

Drawing on these discussions, I spoke about person-centred design, delivery, and evaluation of social services, which is the theme of the current edition of the European Social Services Awards. Person-centred design means placing the person who’s being supported at the centre of these processes in line with EU social policy as seen in the wording of the European Care Strategy (the first of its kind), which underlines the need for care services that are focused on the actual needs and preferences of the individual, rather than the needs of the system.

However, the reality of our systems, in the US and in Europe, is that most agencies that administer social programmes do not have the resources they need. APHSA’s members consistently referred to a workforce and staffing crisis. Likewise, I spoke of similar recruitment and retention challenges in Europe. We have difficulties in attracting staff to the profession but also to social work schools and vocational training. So, the expectation of excellent people’s care when operating under these conditions is really an impossibility for many agencies. We need to rethink the way we attract more people to work in social services and particularly social care with people with disabilities and older people. Some of these may relate to maximising the resources that we currently have while others relate to prevention, and ways in which we cherish and retain what we have as we highlighted in a recent ESN podcast.

In an era of advanced technology and AI, we have the potential to revolutionise the design and delivery of social programmes. Considering the global nature of our conversation, we shared some insight into the approaches to automation, advance technology use, the rise of AI and ethical considerations. I emphasised that technology should be a means to enhance, not to replace, human interactions and connections and the need to balance between leveraging the benefits of digital resources and upholding the core values of social services. IT tools must be there to free up the time for social services professionals to be able do to what they know best: to support people to be integrated in their communities. Instead sometimes we ask them to become data entry officers, data analysts, eligibility calculators. I stressed that this should not be what technology is used for.

Technology can certainly be an instrument for improvement. The Covid-19 pandemic was a catalyst for public social services investment and adoption of technology, most of the time to support organisational change and development, but some of the changes also impacted people e.g. to be able to apply for benefits online, remote assessment and monitoring, or innovations to keep people in their homes and communities (such as cobots, sensors that detect potential falls, medicine dispensers, or social robots). However, there are of course a number of ethical considerations to take into account in relation to informed consent, data privacy and security, equity and accessibility, bias and fairness that must be addressed in this process.

For almost a decade, ESN and APHSA have been reaching out and have participated at each other’s conferences and debates. In these exchanges, I was struck by the similarities of issues. US directors want to know how countries in Europe dealt with service silos, outcomes measurement, co-production and people’s engagement, or technology development. It was appropriate we discussed digital developments at a technology conference where government and the industry work together to deliver meaningful solutions to current and future needs.

It became clear to me that US colleagues not only share the same values but there is a recognition of the benefits of mutual learning in finding solutions to the common challenges that we face. For me, this suggests the need to continue reinforcing our dialogue to strengthen a global partnership that can help us to inform the debate about the kind of society we want, the types of support we provide and to invest sustainably in the future.