Information needs in
|Work role||No. of staff||Ave. wkly no. of meetings||Ave. hrs duration||Ave. hrs per person|
Table 2 below shows the kinds of written communications which landed on the desks of the people observed.
|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|
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.
|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 in multiple copies to keep abreast of current journal literature and to organise small, area office information collections .
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.
|All respondents (n=151)||Directorate||Line managers||Social workers|
|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':
Whatever configuration of computer systems is employed (and the LAMSAC survey of computers in social services  reveals considerable variety) the kinds of information tasks which can be supported, to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon the system, include:
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 . 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  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' .
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.