The rapid digital transformation already underway prior to the Covid-19 crisis further accelerated during the pandemic, leading to the expansion of opportunities for digital inclusion in social services. Technology has also played a crucial role in enhancing social protection delivery to support the most vulnerable, not only in governments’ immediate response to Covid-19 but also within national recovery plans.

Technology and digitalisation have the potential to enable greater equality in accessing social services but access may be particularly challenging for populations like those on lower incomes, or who lack the trust, ability, or skills to use digital channels, as well as lack of trust related to the risk of cyber violence against women or children.

At this month’s European Social Services Conference (ESSC), organised by the European Social Network in Malmö, experts and representatives from public social authorities presented compelling examples of how digital inclusion has had a positive impact on social services, tackling also the challenges that accompany these changes, as well as how it is affecting the workforce. We looked at how some governments have used digital means (often in collaboration with the private sector and civil society organizations) to extend social protection coverage.

Training the workforce on digital tools

Tracy Wareing Evans, President & CEO of the American Public Human Services Association explained how innovation in technology is already supporting the transformation of social services, enabling the social services workforce to thrive and develop still further the support they provide. Ms Evans highlighted that many US workforce leaders believe we are well positioned to make great strides in social inclusion and autonomy through three game changers: human centred design, digital access and virtual service delivery, AI & machine learning. She further emphasised that human-centred design must include the workforce – who is also a customer of the IT tools that are put in place.

The importance of a well-trained workforce on digitalisation was also emphasised by Jonas Lutz, who is leading a project on ‘Digital outreach work with young people in Bavaria, Germany.  Mr Lutz explained how digital streetworkers are trained to reach out to young people through social media and online games and offer them confidential and anonymous counselling and low barrier access to youth welfare services.

Predicting and preventing illness through assisted technology

Remote monitoring through technology, care and assisted technologies can increase the number of people who continue to live at home despite their long-term support needs. Josep Muñoz, Social Services General Manager at Barcelona Provincial Council, Spain, presented  a programme that involves installing sensors to detect unusual behavior in people’s homes, creating an alert for social services. The scheme includes also virtual identification and warning of  cognitive deterioration when they occur.

Jane Velkovski, Disability Advocate from North Macedonia, highlighted that assisted devices, which are crucial to provide ease and relief with mobility problems, are not always available to those in need. ‘It's just shocking to me that social policies sometimes dispute to approve the technological solution that a man has invented for what nature has failed to create. "Why can't assisted living technology be harmonised throughout countries in Europe? Could you put it high on the agenda starting today?" pleaded Jane.

Digital approach to harm reduction

Another innovative example to promote the inclusion of some of the most vulnerable people in our societies was presented by Simon Community Scotland. Their app ‘By my side’, provides access to digital services to ultimately reduce drug-related deaths and homelessness through support, education, and social inclusion for women in homelessness situations. Designed through a gendered-specific lens, the ‘By My Side’ app has been co-developed with women who are supported by Simon Community Scotland.