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IP1 (2003) 66 E Strasbourg, 5 December 2003
The Role of New Information Technology as Regards User Involvement in Social Services

Authors: Lina Gavira, University of Seville and Francisco González, GEISE S.L.


Since the end of the 1990s, the Council of Europe has been developing a series of plans, recommendations and resolutions on the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and its role in promoting democracy and citizenship rights.

The provisional document containing recommendations for the Committee of Ministers, which was prepared by the Intersectoral Group of Experts on e-governance1 as part of the integrated project "Making democratic institutions work", proposes a series of general principles concerning the implications and significance of e-governance for Europe.

In addition, the document prepared by the Group of Specialists on User Involvement in Social Services (CS US) in May 2003 sets out a number of topics which should form the basis of the group's future work. This should include a series of agreements on the meaning of the concepts of social services, participation/involvement, providers and users, together with objectives on guidelines and recommendations concerning good practice indicating ways in which ICT can contribute to the involvement/participation of users of social services and the risks entailed.

Against this background, the present report analyses the implications of the technological changes occurring in society and in the organisation of social services for the involvement/participation of users of those services, and examines the potentialities and risks of using ICT to deliver non-exclusive social services.

    The present context of institutional change

Experts who have worked on the subject generally agree that good-quality social services require the delivery of integrated services that match users' needs from an overall, personal and partnership viewpoint.2

They also emphasise the need for complementarity between benefits policies and active policies on other areas traditionally situated outside the social services proper, such as employment, housing, health etc, in order to empower users.

The participation, representation and inclusion of the interests of social-service users, both actual and potential, in the planning, delivery and evaluation of services, in respect of both decision-making and policy development, also increase the effectiveness and quality of services and encourage users to be active citizens. All this accords with the principle of democratisation and governance.

However, for the political and technical managers of social services the development of integrated services requires both horizontal coordination with other services such as employment, housing, health etc, and vertical coordination between different territorial levels (local, regional, state, global).

Nevertheless, the complexity, from the point of view of the social services and of the various bodies and persons associated with them (policymakers, technical experts, organisations of users or their representatives, social workers), of bringing about a new culture of participation and coordination among individuals and institutions leading to an overall view of users' needs based on active citizenship and empowerment and accompanied by a willingness to assume the costs of change, requires genuine political will, resources and open methodologies that allow the successes and costs of this type of action to be assessed fairly quickly. Monitoring is usually a good catalyst for these processes provided that there are suitable instruments and resources, clear objectives and a strategy.

The decision by the European institutions to opt for the information society and for its political and institutional realisation is another fundamental ingredient of the changes that are affecting social services. The main purpose of this report is therefore to focus on one of the basic aspects of technical change: how does Information and Communication Technology affect user participation in quality social services which promote governance and social democracy?

The Action Plan: e-Europe 2005: an information society for all3 sets out the guidelines decided on by the European Union (EU) regarding the "competitiveness" and "social cohesion" strategy resulting from the 2000 Lisbon Council on the Information Society. The Action Plan proposes to "provide a favourable environment for private investment and for the creation of new jobs, to boost productivity, to modernise public services and to give everyone the opportunity to participate in the global information society. This Action Plan aims to stimulate secure services, applications and content based on a widely available broad-band infrastructure.”

The central role granted to the major business groups in the configuration of digital platforms -- an already highly concentrated business sector -- means that proposals to apply ICT are strongly influenced by the commercial interests of those groups, which impose their strategic priorities based on the profit motive and not on access by the population in general.

The existence of vulnerable groups and territories with low levels of demand and the preference given in business strategies to consumer segments with greater purchasing power mean that the development of broad-band infrastructures and the configuration formats of the applications of these technologies are generally aimed at middle-class consumers or at consumers with purchasing power. The development of e-training and e-skills is also based on thinking more adapted to this type of middle-class consumer. All this occurs despite the talk about theoretical plasticity allowing ICT to be adapted to the consumer’s use; the most widely used formats are devised by technicians unaware of the demands of deprived groups and territories.

Another major problem in applying ICT is the short shelf-life of these applications, which often makes consumers dependent on frequent purchases of equipment, software and skills controlled by the industry.

For most users, the lack of references concerning the quality of information applications in a rapidly changing market makes them extremely vulnerable to the interests of commercial groups.

This situation is even worse if we look at the socio-economic profiles of potential social-service users, who normally suffer from a wide range of economic, educational and social deficiencies. Decisive intervention by policymakers is therefore essential in order to prevent exclusion. Action by social services is influenced by the opportunity costs of adaptating to ICT and by a shortage of funds with which to meet demands. Because of this, it is often decided to opt for "realistic" policies that give priority to sectors of greater electoral interest.

All this requires the political authorities, and not just social-service chiefs, to make a renewed and continuing effort to prevent vulnerable groups and areas -- the focus of social services' activity – from suffering exclusion. In concrete terms, this means involving public-sector enterprises in ICT management, keeping a segment of the NIT market protected (in respect of supply and/or demand), with the social aspect prevailing over the profit motive, or promoting the establishment of joint ventures for inclusion in the information society through ICT (for example, companies with authorised capital equivalent to those operating in the non-profit banking sector which can work with public departments) whose aim would be to ensure that vulnerable groups and areas were not further excluded. The idea behind this is not far removed from the privatisation approach employed to modernise public services.4

The Council of Europe intersectoral group of experts on e-governance5 has recommended the following lines of action for promoting the use of ICT:

  • call on all public departments and agencies to promote legal and political bases for the development of "e-governance"6;
  • encourage e-democracy;
  • promote the quality of public e-services;
  • provide access to public e-services;
  • develop e-training;
  • implement and manage e-governance;
  • work on privacy and data-protection aspects;
  • analyse the impact of ICT and the cost/effectiveness of e-governance.

    User participation in social services and e-democracy

The political implications of opening up social services to user participation is one of the most hotly debated topics of the past few years in academic, social and political circles, but very little thought has been given to the way in which ICT affects the development of e-democracy in the case of users of social services, for example, who suffer from significant deficiencies. As has been said regarding such users, without the decisive support of the various parties concerned and leadership from public-authority chiefs, ICT will not be a route leading to greater openness and democratisation but just another form of exclusion.

In order to develop participation by social-service users in information, advice, consultation and cooperation activities, the parties directly involved must therefore agree on and accept in advance:

  • the meaning of e-participation as empowerment7;
  • a clear prescriptive demarcation of the functions and responsibilities of the persons and bodies that play a part in user involvement/participation at the various territorial levels;
  • a specific definition of the aims that it is desired to attain through ICT in order to ensure that the most deprived groups are not further excluded;
  • the existence of prejudice on the part of users against the authorities and ICT, together with a definite desire to promote policies to encourage e-participation.

If e-participation by users is to be effective, allowance must be made for the diversity of their social situations and deficiencies, for the degree of urgency attaching to their needs and for their motivations and prejudices. In this connection, ICT can be very useful for the creation of databases that can be used as a first quantitative approximation and coordinated with other agencies in order to identify potential users.

However, it has been found that the use of digitalised databases can sometimes lead to a management problem when it comes to obtaining an integrated view of the user, owing to digital simplification, which leads in many cases to excessive reductionism. A problem can also arise from the use of digitalised databases for inter-agency coordination, because each agency tends to have its own formats. This adds economic constraints resulting from the adaptation cost and from the difficulty of agreeing on the format to be generally adopted for coordinating digital databases between different services.8

A knowledge of the needs and prejudices of social-service users requires, in addition to the descriptive methodologies used in database configurations, another type of open methodology that allows entrance to the universe of users in accordance with their cultural codes. In this field, where images can possess great evocative force as metaphors of reality, ICT in its audiovisual version can be extremely beneficial, even though it exists in an institutional context where professional training and direct contact are of the highest importance.

Account must also be taken of the diversity of interests and prejudices that, in the social-service context, affect both policymakers at different territorial levels and professionals involved in management, in order to provide a genuine opening for participation and involve users in the social services.

Failure to consider the plurality of interests between policymakers and service providers regarding the role that user participation can play favours the interests of the groups with the most power to impose their ideas and leads to a usage of ICT which may be regarded as "politically correct " but which is inefficient in securing the empowerment that is the object of user participation.

In order to assess the role of the diversity of interests and prejudices that may exist at policy level with regard to the objective of promoting ICT as a route to the participation and empowerment of social-service users, the following must be borne in mind:

  • short-term economics-based thinking often prevails over social aspects: with the aim of improving the statistical results of policies, users with a lower degree of social exclusion are sometimes selected, and the needs of the most deprived and marginalised are ignored;
  • decentralisation of services does not always imply deconcentration and genuine access to e-participation; a certain suspicion exists that expectations and demands may increase;
  • use of ICT as a way of increasing transparency in the management and results of social services may be restrained by the existence of affinities between service-providing organisations and political groups;
  • competition between NGOs for scarce available resources leads them into a process of concentration in which a few powerful organisations control the decentralised social-service segment. Small NGOs, like small and medium-size commercial enterprises, have greater difficulty in gaining access to and utilising ICT;
  • in developing an equal-opportunities policy for access to the e-administration of social services, short-term electoral interests may clash with the interests of the most deprived citizens, which tend to evolve over the medium term;
  • ICT can be used to disseminate and clarify policies developed by social services, including the development of formats adapted to the users' profiles. However, participatory e-methodologies based on active citizenship and empowerment sometimes cause suspicion on the part of policymakers, who are unused to developing areas of participation and transparency with deprived citizens.

The same occurs with professionals involved in the management of social services, whose activities are characterised by:

  • a use of ICT, in both its planning and management, designed chiefly to promote the organisation’s technical efficiency rather than to improve user access and empowerment;
  • the existence of a work culture which is frequently of a "welfare" and even paternalist kind, which is based on technical thinking that is sometimes foreign to users' culture and which does not encourage the change implied by user participation, especially if the users are young people, who normally possess greater skill in using ICT;
  • inadequate technical and material resources available for user participation in the changes needed for using ICT and e-administration;
  • poor general qualifications and little economic and social recognition by policymakers of skills in this field in the case of professionals who possess them, and a shortage on the market of specific training adapted to the working environment of the social services as it affects ICT, especially in the case of older persons;
  • the rejection of ICT by some professionals leads to a lower motivation to gain access to the continuous-training processes required by the rapid changes in this technological sphere. This is aggravated by the absence of a specialised training market. The outcome is, on the one hand, a dependence by training institutes on non-specialist ICT practitioners who change formats according to the type of technology they control and, on the other hand, a compulsion on professionals to spend enough time to adapt themselves to the teaching formats which it is desired to impose, depending on the institute supplying the training.

Role of ICT in promoting user participation as a way of improving user access to social services

R.Castel 9 stresses the renewed topicality of the social question, which, as a consequence of the changes in the world of work and social protection, causes excess population groups subject to social and professional exclusion to appear and multiply: adult workers who have lost their jobs, long-term unemployed, single women with family responsibilities who depend on scanty social assistance, young people without qualifications and with problems or addictions, impoverished illegal immigrants... all of them in a position that excludes them from circles where productive interchange occurs. At the same time, the vulnerability of a large section of the population is increasing because of the poor quality of most work, resulting in conflicts in the competition for housing and social resources etc between groups clearly identified as target groups and the new poor, many of whom are in that situation because they have come down in the world.

Here ICT can be used both for its potential as a means of improving access and participation by the traditional users of social services and for the opportunities it offers for access by citizens belonging to the "new poor", who fear being socially stigmatised and consequently do not use the social services, thus ensuring confidentiality. ICT can also be useful for the socialisation of citizenship in general as a factor in the production of public solidarity, thus limiting the conflictual nature of relations between included and excluded.

Gender aspects also play an important part in participation in the social services. The most frequent users of these services are usually women as representatives of the domestic group. Nevertheless, the informal-work culture often characteristic of those women and the pressure of their needs make them unreceptive to participation in services. An additional problem is that they often tend to reject ICT more strongly than men as a result of the lifelong socialisation process, as demonstrated by the work of the Girls, Ecology and Action network (www.GEAnet.net).

Nor should it be forgotten that the introduction of e-administration, e-health and e-education imply the possibility of globalisation of these services and an unprecedented restructuring of the sectors in question. These usually have a majority of women, so that the tensions that can arise within them in the absence of global work regulations can lead to a greater exclusion of large swathes of the female population and/or sometimes to high levels of work stress owing to the speed of change.

For young people, especially males, getting them to participate in services is even more difficult because of their distrust of them and the discipline usually imposed.

This means that unless a use of ICT intended to lead to a change in such attitudes is based on the users’ way of thinking, it may be difficult to apply the principle of democratisation and expansion of e-governance.

For this type of strategy it must be possible to build local partnerships in which the different types of user participate. However, if users are to be willing, they must be offered participation based on their interests. For example, it has proved extremely useful in various European countries to link minimum-wages policy with active citizenship through assistance with employment and the creation of self-employment or social-inclusion ventures. In the case of young people, their group consumption patterns can be used as an attraction. It has also been found effective to try to motivate users to participate by employing audiovisual ICT,10 as is done in advertising, with the aim of helping them to discover new potentialities, increase self-confidence and debate existing prejudices concerning services, work as a route to inclusion or the use of housing and health policies etc.

The use of local radio and TV, the making of CDs and the recording and digitalisation of cultural aspects relating to the various cultures and sub-cultures help to encourage the possibility of debate and participation based on dialogue. This is particularly interesting for target groups of differing cultural characteristics and material conditions: young people, women, immigrants, ethnic minorities, the disabled etc.

The major problems encountered by social services in carrying out audiovisual activities like the above are:

  • the limited capacity available for carrying out this kind of audiovisual experiment by themselves, which suggests that agreements should be made with universities or specialised centres. This was the case, for example, with the experiments carried out in this field in Barcelona and Seville (Spain) with problem young people9;
  • how to foresee the demands that activities of this kind may create, which necessarily implies the construction of partnerships in which ICT can also play an important connective role;
  • how to obtain adequate resources and digital infrastructures;
  • the initial distrust often felt by those groups, something that normally requires mediators from the groups themselves.

There are enormous territorial differences in resources and infrastructures, as shown by the Digital Access Index (DAI) of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is built up from five major areas: infrastructure availability, access price, educational level, quality of ICT services and use of the Internet.

The maximum figure for this digital-access indicator at global level relates to the countries of northern Europe, while the lower European values correspond to Portugal, Greece and Spain, which emphasises the increasing digital gap between northern and southern countries.

Another of the major problems of using ICT is that the latter requires specific knowledge about the management of this technology and its terminology: among both social-service professionals and users there are serious shortcomings which eventually cause the use of ICT to be rejected 11.

Different digital formats must be used in order to offer information to users through their local communications media -- on how they can gain access to clear and attractive guides to social resources that can be consulted by users from any PC.

Minimum PC and Internet access should therefore be provided free of charge in areas where potential users of the social services live. The information society also requires that social e-services and e-governance be organised on a territorial basis (districts, municipalities, and areas).

User participation in processes: the role of ICT

ICT can play an important part in enabling social-service users to participate in the successive organisational processes forming part of the system of information, benefit, advice/assistance, training, mediation, monitoring and evaluation without any discrimination based on the gender or state of health of the parties concerned. In certain other cases it can also increase the distance between users and services.

Participation in these sectors is normally established through collaboration with NGOs or organised user groups that can act as mediators on behalf of persons and groups unable to reach services.

The traditional lack of openness on welfare matters that characterises the initial response to need-related problems nearly always ends with the service's approach prevailing over that of the users. In order to involve users, it is therefore not sufficient to use ICT. As already said, what is required is will. Without that will, the possibility of applying e-governance remains extremely limited.

In this connection, since e-governance refers to the planning, implementation and management of change in order to improve relations between the public authorities and other parties in civil society and the way those authorities discharge their democratic and service-delivery responsibilities with the use of e-technology12, ICT can be an effective instrument of user participation in the organisation and carrying-out of social-service activities and programmes by equipping organisations and services at local/regional, national and global level with the following potentialities:

  • supplying information to the various parties concerned, including users, in accessible formats;
  • improving the quality of information, thus saving management time and encouraging feedback;
  • improving possibilities of communication and contact;
  • carrying out electronic transactions (management);
  • encouraging self-service on behalf of persons and groups who have access to e-information on these types of digital formats and who learn to use them;
  • encouraging telephonic or net access to services;
  • generating interactive group-support frameworks;
  • encouraging remote assistance;
  • improving knowledge of services and of the opportunities available through e-training under existing policies;
  • generating new multimedia and interactive information and communication systems for different purposes;
  • encouraging access to good practice in the e-management of social services with user participation.

A good way of getting users to participate in the processes and to offer them the opportunity to learn the replies given by the various agencies forming part of coordinated services is to involve users - in the form both of groups and of organisations representing users' interests - in partnerships and coordination between the services responsible for management at the different territorial levels, and in the feedback from the processes and instruments resulting from that coordination.

Involving users or their representative organisations in the networks covering different geographical areas is a good way of creating control and transparency processes which by their visibility to users and citizens increase governance possibilities.

This is particularly useful in the case of local-level social services, which often possess less political clout than other sectors such as town planning (housing), employment, health etc. Users or their representatives thus become witnesses of power games and can clearly identify those technical or political leaders whose actions fail to match agreements made at network level. Using word of mouth or local communications, they can make known what occurs at institutional level and spotlight any discrepancy, thus becoming a genuine means of verifying how far local policymakers are meeting their obligations. This was the case with an experiment carried out under a European Union NOW initiative in southern Spain, which has had repercussions on policies and on the implementation of governance and the democratisation of services.

In any case, it is necessary to have material and human resources adequate to deal with technological change and opportunities to update them using active-learning procedures and ad hoc training for each organisational context (public, private, non-profit, for-profit) and for each socio-economic and institutional context (more less urban and more or less economically peripheral environment, depending on whether there is a greater or lesser tradition of organisational and participatory culture and whether the context is local, regional, state or European).

All this means that we must consider a series of requirements so as to adapt ICT to the possibilities open to users, improve in this way their access to social services and enable them to share in the organisation of those services:

  • The diversity of the social, economic and cultural profiles and of the motivations of social-service users requires, given the changes produced by e-governance, that they be involved in services in order to improve the effectiveness of the processes of classifying and constructing target groups likely to be managed through e-technologies at different levels (global, regional/local and individual).
  • The participation of social-service users in the development of e-governance and e-democracy does not eliminate but rather strengthens the need for face-to-face attention, at least in the initial process, depending on users' degree of inequality or exclusion, followed by intermediate phases of digital contact which can be assisted by ICT.
  • A formal area must be available for meetings between professionals and users and their organisations in order to agree on and set objectives and strategies.
  • Agreement must be reached on the codes and administrative language to be used in digitalisation, in such a way as to limit the authority relationship between users and professionals.
  • Services must be centralised and transferred to areas where social-service claimants live. PCs must be installed at meeting places and arrangements made for professionals to travel with their portable equipment to the places where the users are and to maintain links with databases and office facilities. E-information through mobile telephones is especially useful for homeless or transient persons, although the technological subcultures of the different social groups tend to vary from place to place.
  • A place for two-way communication with service chiefs must be available. This requires more than users' mere presence in the processes, as the participation of the different types of user in monitoring, depending on the programme, is one of the keys to success in improving user participation and service quality. However, certain user groups suffer from reading and writing difficulties and lack of confidence, which inhibits them from participating. Non-formalised training, including iconographic languages, on how a proper use of ICT can remove these barriers can encourage user participation in these processes of social-policy monitoring and follow-up. In this way, users contribute their views of problems, which can be very useful in improving policy effectiveness.
  • Better links must be promoted between social services and NGOs working with marginalised groups which have various problems of mental health, addictions, human traffic etc for which official action provides little, if any, help. With these groups, personalised face-to-face contact is virtually the only possibility, as it is very difficult to enlist their participation in e-governance. By improving and speeding up coordination between social services and NGOs working with these groups, the use of ICT can reduce the bureaucracy that wastes NGOs' time and resources. This indirectly increases the chance of improving the quality of work with marginalised groups.
  • Programme management must include strategies for the recognition and validation of achievements and difficulties by users that will enable the latter to evaluate what they receive (time and resources). An efficient system will include the creation of databases concerning user-follow-up processes, provided that users have access to them.
  • Mechanisms for ensuring transparency and democratic control based on the introduction of shared monitoring and evaluation processes must be encouraged.

In short, participation in the processes should be understood from the viewpoint of the methodologies involved in the practices developed13, by taking a "qualitative look" that opens the way to access by persons with differing attitudes and expectations.

The use and general adoption of ICT can encourage these processes, which are rich in e-governance and e-democracy, but they can also erect new technical barriers to user involvement in social services in accordance with the objective of active citizenship.

To summarise, we can say that for ICT to play an active role in user participation in services, the latter must meet a number of prior requirements. As pointed out in the document by the Group of Experts on e-governance, e-services must be:

  • identifiable
  • available
  • manageable
  • affordable
  • truthful
  • transparent.

The qualification to be added is that these abstract features are to be applied to flesh-and-blood individuals, who have perceptions that generally differ very greatly from professionals' views about the meaning of those terms.

Consequently, the application of ICT to user participation without a strategy for a qualitative methodological opening to potential users that makes allowance for users' way of thinking from the very outset will ultimately be unproductive as far as the objective of empowering users is concerned.

The big question is the following: is this kind of action strategy possible in Europe? Only a more extensive investigation and an analysis of the lessons to be drawn from cases of good practice in these matters could give some idea of the implications of such a proposal, but that would fall outside the scope of this report.

1 Draft Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on e-governance (2003). Council of Europe. Strasbourg.

2 GAVIRA, L. and GONZÁLEZ, F. (2002). Employment and labour market insertion strategies as a tool for social inclusion. Summary document of the Toledo Conference, 17-18 June 2002. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. www.eurofound.eu.int.

3 COM (2002) 263 final. Commission of the European Communities.

4 GAVIRA,L. and GONZÁLEZ,F. (2000).Integrated approaches to active welfare and employment policies - Spain. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. Publications Office of the European Communities. Luxembourg.

5 Draft Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on e-governance (2003). Council of Europe, Strasbourg.

6 "E-governance refers to the design, implementation and management of change in order to improve relations between public authorities and other parties in civil society, and the functioning of public authorities in the management of their democratic responsibilities and the delivery of services, using e--technology.

7 Empowerment means development of the capacity to take informed decisions that affect one's own life, that limit users' dependence on services and that make them active citizens in respect of rights and responsibilities.

8 DITCH, J. (2002). Integrated approaches to active welfare and employment policies. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. Publications Office of the European Communities. Luxembourg.

9 CASTEL, R. (1997). La metamorfosis de la cuestión social. Paidos. Buenos Aires.

10 GAVIRA, L. (1999). "La participación de los jóvenes con especiales dificultades en la aplicación de políticas activas para el empleo: limitaciones y potencialidades” (The participation of young people with special difficulties in the application of active policies for employment: limitations and potentialities) in “Tercer sector y participación juvenil” (Third sector and youth participation). Revista de estudios de Juventud no 45. National Youth Institute of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Madrid.

11 METAFACTS, Inc (2003). Roadblocks on the Information Highway. Barriers to adoption of technology products. AMD.

12 Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on e-governance (2003). Council of Europe. Strasbourg.

13 ALONSO, L.E. (1998). La mirada cualitativa. Editorial Fundamento. Madrid.