Information needs in
social services:
an overview

T.D. Wilson


There is a debate in information science as to whether information is a 'stuff' or a process. In ordinary usage we refer to different media of communication in terms of the 'information' they carry or contain. We speak, for example, of the 'accuracy' of the information in newspaper reports or of the 'objectivity' of the information conveyed by television reports. We also speak of 'information technology' where information is some 'thing' which can be processed or communicated by the technology. In other words, we have an everyday perception of information as something which, if not exactly concrete, can be grasped. When we look more closely at the nature of information, however, that everyday certainty about its character disappears. For example, we find that we are not always 'informed' by what others call information. In use 'information' has connotations of novelty, or surprise. One definition of information is that it is 'that which fills in forms' (de Mey[1]) - social workers and their managers will readily recognise one meaning of that definition but there is the second meaning that information fills in mental forms. If facts or data or ideas are known to us already, and remembered, then to hear them or read them again does not give us any information. The mental forms relating to those facts, data or ideas are already filled in.

If this is the case then the nature of the everyday life of the individual, in work and in social interaction generally, will be of importance in determining what information is needed by the mental form - just as the nature of design of the client record sheet determines what information is needed for its completion. We need, therefore, to look at the nature of work in social services departments to discover what clues there may be to the kind of information needed for the performance of work and to enable the social workers, managers, and others to become competent and to remain competent.


The first thing to say about social services departments, or social work departments, is that they are not unitary organisations. They are complex organisations, covering wide geographic areas and usually subdivided for management purposes on that basis, and responsible (often under statute) for performing a wide range of functions, from the care of children at risk, to elderly persons, and people suffering from mental illness. These functions are performed in the community at large and in residential establishments or functional units such as day-training centres and special schools. The functions are performed in a political context under the financial constraints set by local and central government.

To speak of the 'information needs of social services departments' therefore, would be to oversimplify the situation considerably. The information needs of departments are the needs of individuals performing jobs and to imagine that the needs are identical when the jobs differ widely would be to obscure characteristics which are important for the design of information systems and services.

In addition to the needs associated with basic social work, residential work, and other direct client-serving functions, there are the needs of departmental managers (at all levels), and the needs associated with specialised functions in departments such as those performed by advisers, training sections, and research and development or planning sections.

This complex structure of roles, specialisations, and relationships with clients and other users of the department's services must guide any analysis of information needs. Furthermore, the task of specifying information requirements should be undertaken before decisions are made about 'human systems' for information service or about hardware and software for computer systems because these elements can only be specified properly on the basis of how they are to be used.

At a more specific level the work of many people in social services departments can be described as fragmented, with many interruptions, and involving largely oral communication. Much of that oral communication is carried on in scheduled and unscheduled meetings of staff, with the meetings load increasing with increasing managerial responsibility. This fits Mintzberg's[2] description of mangagerial work and its appearance at levels other than the managerial in social services departments suggests that bureaucratic work in general may have these features.

Evidence to support this description comes from a five-year investigation of information needs in social services departments (Project INISS) carried out at the University of Sheffield a few years ago (Wilson & Streatfield [3]). The study began with 'structured observation' (Mintzberg [4]) of 22 staff in social services with roles ranging from administrative assistant to director, via basic grade and senior social workers, area and divisional directors, advisers, and assistant and deputy directors. This part of the study resulted in 5,839 records of 'communication events' - where an event was defined as a subject pursued over time. Thus, a telephone call could be a single event or multiple event occurrence, depending upon how many topics were covered during the conversation.

The fragmentation of work, for example, is shown by the way in which one event succeeded another at a rapid rate: 36 per cent of all observed events were completed in one minute or less, and almost 75 per cent of events took only five minutes or less. This brevity of activity is associated with a high frequency of interruption. Typically, an area director checking the morning post would be interrupted by telephone calls, or by a social worker knocking on his office door with questions about holiday entitlements, or the possibility of training, or some other personal issue. Only one person, a research officer, spent lengthy periods of time (up to 248 minutes) on single activities, when writing research reports, but even here there were frequent interruptions.

As long ago as 1923 Steiner[5] described social workers as having a marked preference for informal methods of communication, especially face-to-face conversation. Given that Steiner's work was done in the USA and that the organisation of social work has changed since 1923, it is interesting that this description was verified by the Project INISS data: face-to-face communication accounted for 45.5 per cent of all events and when telephone calls (14.9 per cent) and various combinations of oral and written communications are added the total for all oral communication was 71.3 per cent.

Meetings figured largely in all oral communication and, as one might expect, varied with the hierarchical level of staff. Table 1 shows the data from observation.

Table 1: Time spent in meetings
Work role No. of staff Ave. wkly no. of meetings Ave. hrs duration Ave. hrs per person
Directorate 5 12.0 1.4 16.8
Line manager 6 7.2 1.8 13.0
Adviser 4 5.3 1.2 6.5
Social worker 5 2.8 1.4 3.8
Administrator 2 1.5 0.4 0.6
Total 22 6.4 1.5 9.0


Table 2 below shows the kinds of written communications which landed on the desks of the people observed.

Table 2: Written communications
 Communication events
Type of written information No. %
Legal information (i) 25 2.0
Procedural information (i) 100 7.9
Training information (i) 21 1.7
Central govt. & other statistics (d) 9 0.7
Internal statistics (d) 44 3.5
Client records, referrals, etc. (d) 266 21.0
Internal personnel/financial information (d) 274 21.7
News of developments in social work (i) 133 10.5
Research in social work (i) 30 2.4
Reports on experience or ideas (i) 69 5.4
More than one of the above 188 14.9
Other 105 8.3
Total 1,264 100.0

One of the points to arise out of this table is that some information is better described as 'data' - some of the categories listed are generally associated with facts, ideas, or, in the case of research, newly determined knowledge. Some of this latter kind of information may be of a relatively low order, in terms of conceptual complexity or theoretical content, but it is, nevertheless, a resource called upon to enable social services staff to do their jobs.

Where possible, the letters 'i' for information and 'd' for data have been allocated to the categories: from this categorisation it can be seen that 29.9 per cent of the events involved 'information' and 46.9 per cent involved 'data'. In other words, although data are necessarily of use for management purposes they do not constitute the whole of information for social services staff. This is a point of some significance when it comes to considering computer applications.

Of course, the observation of how much information of different kinds reached the desks of social services staff tells us nothing about the perceived need for the information. However, interviews of 151 staff were carried out in addition to observation and in the course of these interviews people were asked how frequently they experienced a need for information of different kinds. The results are shown in Table 3 below.

Table 3: Need for different types of information; modal response, % respondents giving modal response and % experiencing difficulty in obtaining information (x%)
Information type Mode % (x%)
Legal information Weekly 33 25
Procedural information Weekly 35 27
Names, addresses, tel. nos., etc. Daily 80 13
Training information Less than monthly 48 21
Central govt. statistics Less than monthly 50 11
Internal statistics Less than monthly 50 13
Client records, etc. Daily 53 21
Personnel/financial information Less than monthly 33 11
News of developments in social work Weekly 48 25
Research Less than monthly 40 17
Reports on experience & ideas Monthly 36 21

The categories of information are virtually identical to those in the previous table because they were derived from the observation records. It is interesting to note that certain information types' were needed more frequently than 'data types' and that very simple kinds of information such as names, addresses and telephone numbers were needed most frequently. Anyone who has worked in any kind of organisation can guess which telephone numbers were most difficult to find - those of the organisation's own staff. Clearly, this is an aspect of information provision which can be well served by the technology. The same can be said of the other most frequently needed category, client records. Here, however, effective department-wide systems which overcome problems of reporting, access and confidentiality need a great deal of care in their design, considerable goodwill on the part of those who prepare the data input and more care and attention for the needs of users than data processing departments in local authorities are accustomed to giving.

Of course, the fact that information is needed is no guarantee that it will be found. Respondents to the interview survey were asked whether difficulties were experienced in getting information of the kind listed in Table 3 above. The column headed (x%) shows the proportion of respondents who experienced difficulties in getting each type of information. It ought to be a cause for concern that the 'information' categories - essential for maintaining the professional competency of the social worker - present problems for such large proportions of the respondents. This is all the more so when it is comparatively straightforward to buy a service such as the Social Work Information Bulletin[6] in multiple copies to keep abreast of current journal literature and to organise small, area office information collections [7].

The specific kinds of information needed vary to some extent with organisational role and client group. Dividing interview respondents into 'management' or 'fieldwork' categories, the results suggest that fieldworkers have a more frequent need for client records and for legal information than does management. Management, on the other hand, has a more frequent need for personnel and financial information, internal statistical information and information on training. Results such as this suggest that when a client record system is designed primarily to generate statistical information for management it runs in danger of failing to satisfy the needs of fieldworkers for more client-specific information. The need for legal information also suggests that computer systems to handle data will not answer all the needs of a department.

Of the 5,839 events referred to earlier, 40 per cent (2,353) related to a particular client or to a client group and services to clients were the theme of 1,925 events (33 per cent). When the target group was families the communication usually focused on counselling, support or benefits (28 per cent) or resources (25 per cent); with children the attention tended to be on the adoption or fostering aspects of community care (23 per cent); and with young people 44 per cent of events related to supervision. With elderly people communication was usually concerned with the management of homes (24 per cent) or residential care (22 per cent), and with physically-handicapped people 42 per cent of communications related to resources such as aids and adaptations.

By matching organisational level with client group, therefore, one can begin to build up a picture of the information needs of people working in a department which is quite rich in detail and can provide a sound basis for the design of systems, setting priorities in terms of subject areas and staff groups. However, a caveat must be entered here: the data reported above describe chiefly oral communications and internal documentation - the associations between topics and client groups relate to the then current administrative concerns of the departments. None of the departments had really effective systems for supporting the knowledge base of workers through library and information systems. Consequently, the data represent the administrative status quo or the prevailing value system rather than what might be recommended as ideal. It should also be noted that reporting the modal proportions hides the complexity of concerns in the departments and the design of information systems ought to reflect that complexity as far as possible.

Of course, not all information sources are found within the social services departments themselves: they carry on their functions in a surrounding environment and external organisations of various kinds, ranging from schools to the Department of Health and Social Security. Contact with external organisations is a common phenomenon as Table 4 shows.

Table 4: Frequency of contact with external organisations
  All respondents (n=151) Directorate Line managers Social workers
  % % % %
Never 4.0 0.0 18.2 1.9
Monthly or less 11.9 16.7 27.3 25.0
At least once a week 41.1 50.0 45.4 12.5
Daily or more often 40.4 16.7 9.1 50.0
More complex response 2.6 16.7 0.0 0.0

Not all such contacts necessarily involve the acquisition of information, but many do, and the relevance of information from outside the organisation and the variety of levels at which that information is needed is important for the design of information systems. Devices such as the ICL 'One-per-desk' integrated telephone and microcomputer may well be of more value to social services managers than dumb terminals online to the authority's mainframe computer.


Most contributions to this collection are about the role of the computer in the organisation of departmental information resources. It seems reasonable to ask, therefore, what we mean by 'computer' in this context. Clearly, the word has a number of connotations and for many people the computer is the BBC Model B at home or the Sinclair Spectrum, or whatever. In the context of organisations, however, various options are available for defining 'computer resources':

  • a) The use of stand alone microcomputers running software packages for a variety of office applications. The usual packages include word processing, spreadsheets, and database systems. According to a recent report[8], when businesses buy microcomputers they tend to be used for little more than the first of these functions - word processing.
  • b) The next stage is to network microcomputers and to provide communication links to the outside world, thereby giving access to public electronic mail (such as Telecom Gold) and to online databases. In addition, the same set of packages as in a) above may be used. However, problems exist in the networking of multi-access systems such as databases, and guidance is needed.
  • c) The next level is that of the large minicomputer-based systems such as those offered by DEC (All-in-I), Data General (CEO) and Wang (Wang Office). The basic filing and retrieval systems offered by such firms are relatively crude, so far as their use in handling files which contain large amounts of text, rather than large amounts of data, is concerned, being based on analogues of traditional office filing cabinets, with files, folders and documents. Retrieval is generally on predetermined fields and keywords (usually uncontrolled other than by the individual users). Such systems may be appropriate for personal files but may break down even in such use when the files become extensive. They are quite inappropriate for departmental or section use, let alone organisation-wide applications. Some of the above-named manufacturers are involved in integrating free-text retrieval systems with their products (sometimes employing software houses as third parties to accomplish this) and there is little doubt that, in time, any manufacturer offering 'office automation' will need to follow suit.
  • d) Finally, there is the use of large mainframe computers linked to individual terminals (dumb or intelligent) or to clusters of terminals through local minicomputers. This last option gives by far the greatest degree of flexibility, particularly if intelligent terminals (or microcomputers functioning as such) are used. This configuration allows for personal files and records of only personal interest to be held on local storage, section or division records and files to be shared via the minicomputer, and department-wide interests to be served via the mainframe. It would be very expensive to implement such a configuration from scratch, but most authorities have mainframe computers and are eager to make use of them. However, increasing the volume of use leads to a degradation in response times and to user dissatisfaction with the system and the dedicated, departmental minicomputer linked to the mainframe is probably the best solution to most information handling problems in social services.

Whatever configuration of computer systems is employed (and the LAMSAC survey of computers in social services [9] reveals considerable variety) the kinds of information tasks which can be supported, to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon the system, include:

  1. data storage and retrieval
  2. information access
    1. information retrieval
      • local
      • online
    2. expert systems
  3. communication
    1. internal
    2. external

Data storage and retrieval is probably the main function people think of when considering the application of computers to social services tasks. From the point of view of the fieldworker, easy access to client records, records of foster parents, adopters and information on the current capacity of residential establishments are seen as vital for the effective performance of tasks. Management data culled from these records is also seen as potentially useful in determining priority among different kinds of services. In this area one must be very careful about the choice of both hardware and software. Storage requirements for database systems are high, if they are to be effective. In the relatively near future compact laser discs with read and write capabilities are likely to be with us and they are likely to transform the situation, but they are not here just yet and, in general, the claims of microcomputer salesmen ought to be resisted unless they can show real systems operating under circumstances likely to be duplicated in social services departments. Small files of records in area offices, such as those relating to adopters and foster parents, for example, may be suitable for mounting on a micro, but department-wide systems are likely to need, at the very least, a dedicated departmental minicomputer, and quite sophisticated database software. Another data storage and retrieval use, of course, relates to the analysis of research data collected by inhouse researchers in departments. Packages are available which will run on virtually any of the configurations mentioned earlier, but care should be taken in the choice of packages for the smaller systems because the memory requirement for survey analysis is very large indeed and there may be quite unrealistic limits on the number of cases, or number of variables that can be stored. There is no doubt, however, that for small-scale research the convenience of a micro-computer with a survey analysis package has considerable advantages over negotiating with the data processing section for time on the mainframe.

By 'information access' I mean provision of a means for getting at departmental information and external information sources. One source of the former is the procedural manual - a seemingly necessary tool in all departments but all too often a failure. However, each chapter could be organised as text file produced by a word processor and distributed on disc to all locations.

Clearly, it would be necessary to have compatible systems for this strategy to work. Updating would then be a relatively easy affair and, of course, paper copies of the most heavily used chapters could be produced locally. Most departments have various stores of documentary information, sometimes in an information section or a training library, often scattered throughout the system in area offices. Database systems such as 'Cardbox' are designed to create records for documents to provide electronic card-catalogues with retrieval capabilities. With the software package available in all area offices it would be possible to send out the catalogue on floppies to provide a readily-updated list of at least some of the 'knowledge-support' materials available in the department. As with record systems, however, the memory requirements of such software are high and department-wide systems need minis or mainframes to cope effectively.

Access to external knowledge is provided by the online bibliographic database. Today, popular microcomputing journals for the home use are carrying articles on how to gain access to such databases [10]. A home computer equipped with a modem and appropriate software can now tap into millions of records in every conceivable subject field. There are costs, of course, telecommunication costs and computer search costs and the present state of 'user-friendliness' of the systems means that it may be best, at present, to use such services through the authority's public library.

The latest buzz-word in computer applications is expert system, meaning a computer program which draws upon a knowledge base provided by human experts and which can be used to support the work of the less expert or, in some of the fancier flights of imagination, even replace the human expert. Some such systems are working, here and how. But they are very restricted in the domains of knowledge to which they can be applied and Dreyfus & Dreyfus [11] suggest that human knowledge is gained through an holistic process of pattern recognition which cannot yet be replicated by computer. Some present systems in medicine, for example, may perform better than a medical student but they are unlikely to match the diagnostic capabilities of panels of experienced consultant physicians. They quote from Bennett:

'The optimistic expectation 20 years ago that computer technology would also come to play an important part in clinical decisions has not been realised, and there are few if any situations in which computers are being routinely used to assist in either medical diagnosis or the choice of therapy' [12].

One could imagine, however, relatively crude, rule-based expert systems replacing paper or computer-stored procedure manuals. Such a system would 'interrogate' the social worker to discover the facts of a case involving, say, the payment of allowances to a foster parent, and then show on the screen the appropriate instructions for dealing with the case, possibly presenting on screen a copy of the appropriate form to be filled in by the social worker and then forwarded to the department's head office. The extension of expert systems into areas of counselling and therapy, however, seems doubtful and is probably not even desirable. If someone has difficulty in relating to people, having that person relate to a computer system may not do a great deal of good.

The communication aspects have already been touched upon in two senses: the facility to make use of electronic mail on networked systems, and the ability to reach beyond the department to sources of information or communication contacts in other organisations. The significance of this aspect of information transfer cannot be exaggerated - not only does it become possible to treat any organisational information store, from case records to library files, as a single resource accessible to all those authorised to gain access, but it becomes feasible to think of information in any location as, potentially, available on the desk of every worker in a social services department. The consequences of this for maintaining the knowledge base of the organisation, let alone any administrative efficiency that might result from improved access to records and data, could result in major benefits for organisational effectiveness.


This chapter has tried to show that information needs in social services departments are not homogeneous - they are reflections of the complex nature of the organisations, the needs of the community served, and the varied functions of those who work in them. Needs cannot be defined without reference to the general work behaviour of individuals and the roles of different sections of the department. It has been suggested, however, that there are sufficiently similar sets of needs to guide the development of information systems.

Computers have a role to play in systems designed to meet information needs, but they are not a panacea and, clearly, they offer no ready-made solutions. A computer is a machine for handling symbols - what symbols, who prepares them, what kinds of outputs are needed from the computer, and what software will be most effective are questions which the system designer must ask and to which he/she must discover answers. In the process of systems design the views of the ultimate user must be paramount - data processing department solutions based upon what that department thinks ought to be the users' needs will result, almost inevitably, in systems which fail to meet the needs of users.


I am grateful to my colleague. Professor Michael Lynch, and to Dr. Marian Barnes of Hounslow Social Services Department for reading and commenting on a draft of this paper.


  1. de Mey, M. The Cognitive Paradigm. Reidel: Utrecht, 1982.
  2. Mintzberg, H. The Nature of Managerial Work. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1973.
  3. Wilson, T.D. et al.  You Can Observe a Lot ...; A Study of Information Use in Local Authority Social Services Departments. Sheffield: University of Sheffield, Postgraduate School of Librarianship and Information Sciece, 1980.
  4. Mintzberg, op. cit.
  5. Steiner, J.F. 'The Reading Habits of the Social Worker.' Journal of Social Forces. 1, 1923, 477-487.
  6. Social Work Information Bulletin. Leicester: Leicester Libraries and Information Service. (published fortnightly). [No longer published TDW, May 2001]
  7. Streatfield, D.R. & Wilson, T.D. 'Organising Office Information' Community Care. No. 275, August 2 1979, 16-18.
  8. Wharton Information Systems. Personal Computers in UK Offices. Richmond-upon-Thames: Wharton, 1985.
  9. Cordingley, E.S., Clark, E. & Rajan, L. Computerisation in Social Services and Social Work Departments; A National Survey, 1984. London: LAMSAC, 1984.
  10. See, for example: Newton, M. 'Ringing into Work'. in: Profit Through Business Computing. Supplement to Personal Computer World. September 1985, 36-39; and Lisanti, S. 'The On-line Search' Byte. 9(13), 1984, 215-230.
  11. Dreyfus, H.L. & Dreyfus, S.E. 'From Socrates to Expert Systems: The Limits of Calculative Rationality' Technology in Society. 6, 1984, 217-233.
  12. Barnett, G.O. 'The Computer and Clinical Judgment' New England Journal of Medicine. 397, 1982, 493.

A slightly revised version of a paper originally published in New information technology in management and practice, edited by Gordon Horobin and Stuart Montgomery. London: Kogan Page, 1986. (Research highlights in social work, No. 13) pp.12-24