Now is the time for the digital transformation of social services
‘Digital transformation’ has been a buzzword in policy circles for some time now, and commitments to making it work for citizens, business and society as whole abound. Brussels has been no exception – the European Commission presented its data and artificial intelligence (AI) strategies in February of this year. But a closer look at what has been set out so far reveals a missing link between digital transformation and social policy. For example, the Commission’s 2018 communication describing how the EU can support the digitalisation of health and care purports to encompass social care but mainly focuses on health-specific topics such as e-prescriptions. 
Tech for good – in bad times
And yet there is so much happening on the ground. The same digital technologies that are game-changers in the manufacturing and service sectors are also making their way into all aspects of social care and social welfare, from policy design to the actual delivery of services to users. The global ‘tech for good’ movement embraces a wide range of initiatives that make use of digital technology to improve social outcomes.
AI and big data are being used in the planning of resource allocation. Blockchain – a database technology that allows transactions to be managed securely – is being trialled for use in the payment of pensions and other benefits. Online platforms, tools that are widely used for ordering groceries, takeaway meals and lifts, are also helping to connect carers with people requiring their services. Eurofound’s just-published report Impact of digitalisation on social services describes the many ways that digital technologies are already being employed to improve the planning and delivery of social services.
- Publication: Impact of digitalisation on social services
The potential of these technologies is more palpable in the dramatic circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most perturbing developments during the lockdown in Spain has been the abandonment and neglect of residents in some nursing homes.  In most Member States, care homes have suffered high death tolls, and in some, the continuity of care has been compromised. Digital technologies can contribute to prevent contagion and ensure continuity of care. The use of robots to do diagnostics and clean hospitals is becoming more common, but robots are also being used to interact with older people and to assist them and their carers with tasks. Wearable devices enable older people to monitor their well-being and stay in touch with their carers and family.
The pandemic has also put social welfare systems under pressure. The spike in job losses has led to unprecedented numbers of applications for unemployment benefits and other types of social assistance being submitted in record time. Here, digital technologies can detect welfare fraud and process requests efficiently while minimising social contact.
There is a strong case for scaling up the use of digital technologies in social care and social welfare, but the policy impetus has been muted so far. The European Pillar of Social Rights, the EU’s statement setting out the social rights of Europeans, makes scant reference to how digital technologies can help achieve these rights. The European Semester, the annual process under which the Commission coordinates Member States’ economic policy, in recent years has included several messages and recommendations on e-health, e-skills and digital public services delivery. But little has been said specifically about the digitalisation of social services.
Some barriers do need to be addressed before the full potential of digital technologies can be realised. The nature of social care and social welfare makes the use of big data and AI particularly difficult. The data dealt with is sensitive, and there is a lack of clarity for staff about how and with whom it should be shared. There are also ethical issues regarding the decisions taken using AI, such as confidentiality, informed consent and the autonomy of service users. This could be addressed by providing clear guidelines and training for staff. If the Commission’s foreseen review of the Digital Education Action Plan and the consultation on the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence go ahead, they could help to address these issues. Further research identifying the implications and barriers to the use of big data and AI in social services would also contribute to having a policy framework that considers these specificities.
As with everything else now, the pervasive issue is funding. Already before the pandemic, there were often few incentives for tech suppliers to develop technologies with high investment costs for a sector with unclear or insufficient reimbursement mechanisms. Many technologies successfully piloted have not been taken up because of the steep costs for providers and users. As the EU looks forward and develops new instruments to rebuild Europe, it is time to connect the dots and make the digital transformation of social policies part of it.
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Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.