Social workers online (Soctanter)

Published on: 04/06/2009

Social workers online is an Internet forum open for all citizens to ask questions concerning the social services provided by the municipality. This service is a discussion forum open for anyone to contact professional social workers. The citizens will also get help, ideas and answers from reading other persons questions and the following answers.

This is a completely new way of conducting social work in a Swedish municipality. The forum gives the users the possibility to tell the social worker just as much as they themselves decide that they want to share. They don't need to make an appointment or follow the working hours of the social department. They will not have their case registered; the social department will make no file of them or their issues. The users remain completely anonymous.

Social workers online is a whole new way for citizens to get in contact with the social services. Consequently several new groups of citizens contact us. The citizens that use the forum ask questions and discuss issues that are much less severe than the clients that approach the social department directly. The questions concern much earlier stages of drug abuse, fear of homelessness, family violence, relationship problems etc. Consequently the citizens get advice and support earlier than they else would get. This early performance work preventive. That is the main ideas of the forum.

Very many relatives contact Social workers online. Relatives are normally not involved in the social work of the municipality. Accordingly, we receive contacts with citizens that we would not get otherwise. The forum empowers these relatives. It gives them a new possibility to participate in difficult processes. It also lowers the barrier to contact the social service. The Internet forum is empowerment in practice. Since the social department makes no registration of the individuals or their cases, they will neither make an investigation or follow-up on the citizen. The case is still in the hands of the individual.

When Social workers online started in april 2007 we addressed citizens 18-22 years old living in the City District of Södra Innerstaden in Malmö that had questions on drugs and alcohol. Now we have learnt that we cannot define and limit the users of the site. Since the users ask questions on very many more topics, and represent all age categories and can live anywhere, we have broadened the forum both thematically and geographically.

Policy Context

According to the Swedish Social Service Law, all citizens shall be able to participate in our society. Using Social workers online, we let citizens state their views on the needs of the society. The forum is social inclusion work in practice.

By using the internet forum, the citizens can ask advice and get counselling without turning themselves in. The citizens are in charge concerning how much information they want to give us, what issues they want to discuss etc. Although they have turned to professional guidance, they are still masters of their own situation. Instead of taking responsibility away from the client, they maintain it and act it. Thus this is empowerment for real.

To deal with anonymous clients is a completely new way of working within the Swedish social service. We are used to meeting the client, enter the client in a journal, document and investigate. Whenever a citizen contact us and asks for support we must start an investigation. A social service investigation can be very hard on the client. We are obliged to act as an authority and that can be perceived as offending.

Instead of working with the personal meeting, we work using words. For the social workers this is a whole new method and a whole new attitude towards the individual and the citizen. We try out new ways to work with empowerment and consequently develop our work. Besides, Social workers online gives citizens a better public control of the social services of the municipality.

This e-service is our way to deal with and encourage social inclusion and empowerment. This is directly linked to local, regional, national and European policies. Just as the Lisbon Agenda and the European eGovernment Awards, Social workers online focuses on improved and easier access to public services. The development of this ICT solution directly affects the participation and involvement of new groups in society. In the long run, social inclusion will help support growth and employment.

Strategic environmental analysis made by management shows several important development factors, to take into account in our social work: need for individual solutions, 24/7 hours-service, IT communication with citizens, changing of attitude from authority to coaching. Social workers online fulfils all of these needs.

The view on management within social services in our city district is that"140 brains think better than 4". It means that employees´ idea production is encouraged while managements´ task is to make strategic choices from these ideas. Every employee shall, in addition to the basic tasks, think about how to improve the tasks, giving us constant improvement and empowers the emloyee. Time between idea and execution should be "ridiculously short".


Description of target users and groups

The target group is any citizen of Malmö that is in need of counselling concerning the social service of the municipality (social service, care of the elderly and people with functional disorder, child care and school). Social workers online also provides information and counselling on other areas of the Swedish society. The City of Malmö has approximately 300 000 inhabitants; they are the target group.

It is difficult to estimate the composition of the users since they have the right to be completely anonymous. Judging from the questions that they ask, we believe that they are young and middle aged people and everything in between. Elderly people and children are not that frequent on the forum.

Very many relatives - friends and family - to persons that are in need of help contact the forum. Relatives do not normally address the social services since it is hard to make contact using telephone or visit on the social department. However, using the forum one can remain anonymous and still get the required information and affirmation that one needs.

Soctanter online is also directed towards individuals that would not normally contact the social services. We can find and support people long before their situation develops into a deep crises.

There are no geographical borders on the Internet. The forum is developed to support citizens of Malmö but it can be used by anyone. We have received questions also in Danish and English and of course we reply to these questions as well.

We have approximately 3,500 visitors/month on the forum. Normally we get two questions per day. Most contributions are read by 40 persons, but some are read by several hundred users. 

Description of the way to implement the initiative

In 2007, within the framework of Outlook Europe (strategic management and developmental work within the social services in the City District of Södra Innerstaden in Malmö ) 54 employees visited 7 European cities, met with European collegues to find new solutions to common problems. The idea of Social workers online came from one of these visits.

Initially the service was directed towards inhabitants of the City District of Södra Innerstaden aged 18-22 that had questions on alcohol and drugs. Very soon we realised that the topics required were much broader and accordingly we developed the service thematically and geographically. The service is now conducted on a part time employment shared by two trained social workers. We receive more and more questions and discussions on the forum, and consequently we now plan to enlarge the service to full time employments.

The overall management strategy of the social department of the City District of Södra Innerstaden in Malmö City is to include the staff and the professionals. "140 brains think better than 4". It means that employees´ idea production is encouraged while managements´ task is to make strategic choices from these ideas. Every employee shall, in addition to the basic tasks, think about how to improve the tasks, giving us constant improvement. Time between idea and execution should be "ridiculously" short.

The service Social workers online is thus developed by two social workers in the city district who visited Berlin, Germany, and were inspired by a somewhat similar service. Right from the start and all the way to where the service is today, the idea has been developed by social workers. They deal with the current issues on a daily basis and are very familiar with the needs of the public.

The development of the forum has been directed by the social workers themselves all the time. The management of the department and the city district has supported the social workers and let them direct the development. This is clearly one of the reasons of the Social workers online’s success. Right from the very first beginning it has been driven by the professionals’ knowledge on the needs of the public.

Two trained social workers handle the service. We believe that it is important to be two colleagues who share the work in order to secure that all answers are correct and easy to understand. Since the social workers are only two, we find that the service is vulnerable in case of illness etc. However during holidays we still succeed to have the service going on a full scale by using additional colleagues. In order to handle the current vulnerability we plan to enlarge the service into full time employments soon.

Social workers online has developed the social service of the municipality as a whole. Working with the Internet forum, we now have many more contacts – internal as well as external – with other departments and organisations that are experts in their respective fields of action. That help us give correct answers. This structured cooperation also facilitates the ordinary and daily work of the department. 

Concerning marketing we started by advertising in the regional newspapers on the internet, sending out information to the basic target group in the city district and lectured at high schools and local adult education. However, right from the start Soctanter online has received a very large media interest. The service is completely new and innovative and accordingly local, regional and national media has reported on it.

Not only the media is interested in our work. Very many other municipalities, national institutions and NGO:s have contacted us a wanted to learn more about our work. Very many of them are interested to start something similar and want to learn from our experiences. We have been accommodating and informed about our lessons learnt – positive, negative and also about the ones we have not yet solved. As a result of this overwhelming interest, we have started a network including colleagues with similar tasks in other organisations. The aim of the network is to support each other in the development of comparable e-services to empower the citizens. Local, regional and national organisations and public authorities are members of the network.

Since it is other Swedish public authorities that must obey the same Social Service Law as we, the interest from Swedish public organs have been very impressive. But that is not all; the interest has also come from abroad. For example we have been invited to lecture on an international conference, People and Politics, where seven organisations from six countries participated.

Technology solution

Social workers online is a moderated discussion forum. Posted contributions will be read by the social workers before they are published on the Internet. All work with the forum is handled during office hours. We would like to change this, and for example work evenings instead of during day time. Our policy is to answer within 24 hours. We point out that emergencies should be directed elsewhere.

In order to secure that they are not discriminative and in order to secure anonymity and secrecy, we read all contributions before they are published. Since we are a public authority run by laws we must secure anonymity and secrecy. We remove names, addresses etc that could lead to that the persons involved are recognised. This moderation is a security for the forum and for the individual. However we have never received discriminatory contributions.

We have recently ordered a new technical solution that will allow us to work with new functions such as division of topics, search functions, FAQ etc. Thus we will be able to create a bank of information so that it is not necessary to pose your own personal question. The new technical solution will also offer a direct chat.

Social workers online has been investigate by the Swedish Data Inspection Board. That was very useful since we were informed about the insecurities of our service. As a consequence we have improved the security concerning anonymity on the forum.


Technology choice: Standards-based technology

Main results, benefits and impacts

Social workers online is a revolutionary way to conduct social service. It makes us reach new target groups, groups that we never reach in our traditional work. It empowers the citizens to be master of their lives and diminishes our power of their cases and how they handle their situation. The Internet forum let the citizens remain anonymous in their contact with the social service. As a consequence the barrier to contact us is much lower – thus many more people, and other people than traditionally, get in contact with us, and many people contact us much earlier, long before their situation has developed into crises.

Social workers online is the very first real preventive work dealing with adult alcohol and drug abusers that we do. Earlier we have only been able to work with traditional methods such as lectures and visiting works etc. This new method has proved to be effective and preventive since we find and support the citizens in an early stage and at the same time we market our work and neutralise the contact with the social service. This helps the individuals and saves money and time for the social department.

Social workers online is a way to visualise the needs of the citizens. In visualises and concretises the issues that we need to develop and handle differently. The Internet forum gives all citizens a new insight and a better view of the work of the social department. This increased knowledge and more relaxed attitude will, in the long run, change the perception of the social service. The forum also gives us a chance to get feedback on our work and services. This direct channel works as a constant evaluation source of our work. Accordingly it gives us reasons to, and the necessary information to, develop our methods.

The web forum is a new way of access to our services. It gives the citizens more choices concerning how they want to contact us and in what way they want to recieve support and municipal service. This empowerment of the citizen forces us to reflect on our own work. The Swedish social service has traditionally been very introvert concerning management and the view of the client. Now we are forced to rethink our view of ourselves as well as of the client. While we focus on empowering the citizen, we start changing our own work. We believe that we see the beginning of the restructuring of the Swedish social service. Most likely our work will emanate from the citizens and not the service in the future. In our organisation, these new insights are a direct consequence of the work with Social workers online.

We have more and more users on the forum. In our mind, this proves that the service is required and beneficiary.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

A few years ago the department of social service in the City District of Södra Innerstaden in Malmö conducted a large developmental work called Outlook Europe. 54 trained social workers visited seven European cities in order to see how European colleagues handle their work in order to learn from their methods and challenges. Some of us visited Berlin, Germany, and were inspired by NGO:s working with social counselling in a non-traditional way. We brought these interesting ideas home, and developed the untraditional methods into our own solution using new techniques and new methods.

We developed our forum from a some what similar service and changed the original idea so it would fit into the Swedish system directed by Swedish laws and traditions. Accordingly we are certain that others could use our idea to learn from and change it into a service that is needed in their respective context.

We have found that municpalities, the police force, the health care system, NGO:s from all over Sweden and elsewhere are very interested in our service. They have contacted us to learn more from our experiences in order to prepare to develop their own services. We have been very accommodating and have shared experiences of our success stories, our failures and the tasks we still need to develop.

Lessons learnt

1. Develop a measurement tool before you start a new service. We need to evaluate our service and in order to do so we must create an appropriate measurement tool. We need a tool that works quantitative as well as qualitative.

2. Internet is not and cannot be, geographically limited. One can only adjust the service towards the wanted target group, but one cannot decide on the target group on Internet. 

3. When working on the Internet we loose the personal meeting with the client, but we gain new contacts from other citizens concerning other questions. On the whole we win very much that we could not get without Social workers online. Many more people that need professional social guidance will find it easy and fast thanks to this inclusive service.

Scope: Local (city or municipality), National, Regional (sub-national)