Innovation in Social Services: How Technology is Changing the Landscape

May 2024 by Tradewind Australia

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Social services providers, like every other sector of the economy, need to keep abreast of new innovations and developments. Technology is already deeply embedded in our daily lives, therefore, it makes sense that social service providers make more use of it to improve service delivery.

The good news is that researchers, social services practitioners and a few policy makers have heeded the call, and are taking steps to digitise the way we work So, what does that look like in the real world? And how is technology changing the focus of social services jobs in Australia?

We’ll highlight how technology in social work practice is leading innovation in the field.

Data Analysis in Social Services

Data, almost singlehandedly, has the power to transform evidence-based decision-making and service planning in social services. With digital record-keeping and data analytics, service providers could help identify trends and patterns in client demographics, needs, and outcomes.

Several data analytics-focused projects are underway to do just that. For example, The Queensland Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women has engaged the University of Queensland to explore the use of predictive analytics in child welfare.

In Victoria, Swinburne University is working on two data-driven projects with the aim of innovating social services delivery. One is to understand family violence outcomes ‘using novel data analytical techniques’, and another is the development of the Children and Parent Centre of Excellence (CAPCE), to demonstrate how a ‘place-based, connected, infant-focused, expert early intervention service can simultaneously generate improved outcomes for vulnerable infants exposed to trauma and their families’.

Mobile Apps for Client Support

Another area of innovation is in mobile applications. More government and non-government organisations are rolling out user-friendly apps that can give social services clients tools for self-assessment, coping strategies and access to resources.

One example is the Ask Izzy app and website, which is a free resource that connects vulnerable Australians to housing, food, family violence support, counselling and other services. Developed by Infoxchange in partnership with several major digital companies, the app now supports more than 200,000 requests for help every month.

Remote Case Management

Remote case management is an area where technology in social work practice is especially beneficial. It involves organising and supervising services from various providers, including aged care, education, youth services, mental health support, and homelessness organisations.

Digital tech is key to making remote case management work successfully. For example, cloud-based case management systems enable social services professionals to collaborate on cases in real-time, regardless of their physical location. Secure messaging and file-sharing tools allow for communication and coordination among multidisciplinary teams, improving efficiency and client outcomes.

The University of Sydney’s Research Centre for Children and Families has reported the practical benefits of remotely delivered social services. Remote case management can be useful in keeping families connected when face-to-face contact isn’t possible and assist people with disabilities and mobility issues. Young people may feel more comfortable with remote case management, as they tend to be more comfortable with digital communication.

There are situations, however, where remote case management has clear limitations. Virtual visits may not be appropriate if there is known or suspected domestic violence in a family, as University of Sydney researchers indicate, while some clients (especially our elderly community) may simply prefer face-to-face communication.

Virtual Counselling and Teletherapy

Telepractice platforms allow social services professionals to conduct counselling sessions remotely, which is a huge leap in overcoming geographical barriers and providing access to services for clients who have a disability or are housebound, and those who live in rural or remote areas. More broadly, telepractice can also help connect family members who are physically separated, and help social services providers manage complex cases with multiple practitioners.

The adoption of telepractice in healthcare offers clues about how it can be adopted in social services settings. For one, it’s quite popular – since 2020, 48% of Australians accessing health services during the pandemic used a telehealth service and 63% would be willing to use telehealth services in future.

Video calls might not be a complete substitute for face-to-face client interactions, but they can be an important part of a social services professional’s toolkit, especially in areas like early mental health intervention, as AIFS research shows.

Limitations, Ethics and Legal Considerations

The use of technology is certainly driving innovation in social services in Australia. But it’s important to acknowledge the limitations, along with ethical and legal considerations, of using digital tech.

Among these limitations is the digital divide, which refers to the level of access that people have to technology such as mobile phones and broadband internet. In Australia, people with limited or no access to digital technologies tend to be over 75 years of age, have a disability, live in public housing, or have not completed secondary school, the 2023 Australian Digital Inclusion Index report shows. Considering people from such groups may need access to social services more than others, it’s fair to say that tech-led social services innovations will need more work to become truly inclusive and accessible to all.

Further, privacy is a major ethical and legal issue that is often raised around the use of technology in social services. Social services rely on confidentiality and boundary maintenance in client-professional relationships, so social services professionals have a serious obligation to use technology ethically.

What Does This Mean for Jobs in Social Work?

Does the growing use of technology in social services mean people will need tech skills for jobs in social work? Absolutely! While you’re unlikely to start seeing ‘software programming skills’ in selection criteria for social services professional jobs anytime soon, it’s a given that being comfortable with tech is important for future success in a social services professional career.

Embracing technology isn't just about using the latest gadgets or apps; it's about understanding how these tools can enhance client services, streamline administrative tasks, and improve outcomes for all. So, while you might not be coding algorithms as a social services professional, being tech-savvy will undoubtedly boost your effectiveness and adaptability as a professional.

Access Guidance with Our Social Services Recruitment Team

For more insights into developments impacting social services professionals, help with finding social work jobs, or help with adding a professional to your team, contact us at Tradewind today or browse our social services jobs here. As a dedicated social services recruitment agency, we are passionate about staying informed about the sector’s evolution and helping build a resilient social services workforce.