“We can tell you what we want, what we really really want”: Social care, SMEs, and digital technology

Written by Sara Dunn, Owner and MD at Sara Dunn Associates Ltd

“Why can’t social care ‘get’ digital?” I often hear this question, in one way or another, frequently accompanied by a degree of exasperation from the questioner. And I always think, to borrow from Christine Asbury’s excellent DL blog a few weeks ago, that the questioner is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Because social care does get digital, it is just that, very often, digital does not get social care.

For the last three years I have been evaluating a small-scale Department of Health funded project called Connecting Care. Delivered by technology advice charity Lasa, the aim was to provide 40 small charities in the adult social care sector with strategic ICT support to help them make the best use of digital technology, for their organisation, their staff, and the people using their services.

One of the clear themes that emerged was how impossibly difficult it is for these organisations to get the support they need to make digital work for them. The care employers I spoke to were all aware that they were behind the curve when it came to the uptake of digital technologies – many of them were deeply worried by it – but they simply did not know how to tackle the problem. Typical stories involved so-called ‘impartial’ tech advice geared to solutions that suited the supplier not the care organisation, well-meaning ‘help’ from “husbands and brothers who usually make things worse”, volunteer IT support workers taking a whole day to connect a new printer and crashing the network in the process. This is the everyday reality of small social care charities, who usually have no in-house IT expertise at either operational or strategic level.

What the Connecting Care participants welcomed with open arms was the Lasa team’s offer of expert, impartial advice, tailored to their organisation, and grounded in an understanding of the priorities, values – and constraints – of voluntary sector social care. Judging by what my informants said, this is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Another striking finding was the enthusiasm with which care staff – sometimes portrayed as mass technophobes – embraced the use of mainstream digital devices… when they can be shown to deliver real benefits to the people they support. Lasa ran ‘show and tell’ sessions for care workers, activity co-ordinators, support staff and volunteers, most of whom were not confident about ‘computers’ (but of course many of whom use smartphones in their personal lives). The sessions focused on the many ways that tablets can be used to support people needing care and support, whether it be for communication, reminiscence, specialist medical apps, or just getting news on demand. One social care employer talked of a previously techno-sceptic care manager who left one of these sessions with a tablet on her shopping list.

So, it would seem that in order to ‘get digital’, social care wants free or low-cost, impartial advice about technology, and help to use that technology for the benefit of people needing care and support. If the digital technology industry can’t provide that, the shortcoming lies with the industry, not with social care.

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