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Wired Welfare?
Setting an Agenda for Social Policy


Wired Welfare?
Setting an Agenda for Social Policy

Report on the workshop
13th January 2000
King's Manor, University of York



The workshop was supported jointly by the ESRC Virtual Society? Programme and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The event was attended by 45 people.

The impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on the social, political and economic structures of modern societies is now beyond doubt. The magnitude of the debate raging about both the positive and negative aspects of the new media bares testament to its transforming qualities. Its lack of prominence in the field of social policy thus comes as some surprise. Whilst social policy commentators have sometimes recognised that ICTs are implicated in changing the management of liberal democratic welfare states, even in recent explicit attempts to imagine welfare futures they have offered little analytic leverage on the broader implications for social policy of the emergence and functioning of ICTs.

The event was thus an attempt to make a small contribution towards opening up a debate about the implications of ICTs for social policy in the UK. It did this by focussing on the emergence of a range of issues around the use of ICTs which potentially offers challenges both to providers and recipients of welfare. Challenges such as: impact of ICTs on the administration and organisation of welfare services and benefit payments; development of welfare services partly or wholly delivered by ICTs; potential for ICTs to facilitate the undermining and circumvention of the power of ‘professionals’ in the delivery of welfare; ability of ICTs to contribute to self-help welfare through the development of computer mediated communication; and potential for the creation of a new (digital?) democratic order in which issues relating to welfare can be discussed and where citizens potentially can engage with the decision-making process.

Brief overview of presentations

The event was divided into 4 sections, with 2 papers presented in each section.

The day began with two papers which aimed to set the context for the rest of the day. Andrew Webster and Nik Brown (SATSU, University of York) began the day with an excellent overview paper on ‘The Social Science of ICTs: What are the Issues?’ based on a review for the ESRC. The paper usefully situated current debates about ICTs within the context of a range of substantive and conceptual debates in the social sciences and identified a number of themes and issues likely to be important in the short and medium term. This was followed by a detailed empirical paper by Paul Foley (De Montford University) ‘Whose Net? The Characteristics of Internet Users in the UK.’ This paper, based on research funded by the DTI, examined data from a number of ISPs in order to build up a detailed spatial and socio-demographic profile of the distribution of internet access in the UK.

The second session of the day dealt with the impact of ICTs on the Public Services. John Hudson (University of York) examined ‘Informatisation and the Public Services: Perspectives from Political Science’ offering a range of different conceptualisations of attempts to introduce ICTs into the social security system, NHS and social services. This was followed by a polemical piece by Brian Loader (CIRA, University of Teesside) on ‘Wired Welfare: an Agenda for Change?’ in which a number of different possible characterisation of future directions of change were introduced and critiqued.

Following lunch the third session was based on two linked papers dealing with Virtual Community Care? ICTs and the Rise of Virtual Self Help based on the ESRC VS? Funded project on this theme at the University of York and the University of Teesside. The first part by Roger Burrows, Sarah Nettleton, Brian Loader, Nicholas Pleace and Steven Muncer on‘Virtual Self Help, Reflexivity and Risk’ dealt with a range of conceptual and policy issues relating to the emergence of various forms of computer mediated social support. The second paper by Nicholas Pleace, Steven Muncer, Roger Burrows, Sarah Nettleton and Brian Loader on ‘Social Support in Cyberspace’ presented two detailed case studies. The first examined a sample of threads from a newsgroup for people suffering from depression and the second examined an IRC for recovering alcoholics.

The fourth and final session of the day dealt with two different ICT based Innovations in service delivery. The first by Tim Venables and James Barlow (SPRU, University of Sussex) was based on an evaluation of the JRF sponsored SMART Homes initiative. This examined various aspects of the whole SMART homes project from design and implementation right the way through to user evaluations of these innovative technologically enhanced home. This was followed by a paper by Margaret Reid, Tracy Ibbotson and Nessa Barry (University of Glasgow) on ‘Telemedicine and the Consultation’ which offered a range of ethnographic insights into the implementation of telemedicine in Scotland.

There was ample scope for discussion throughout the day and the audience raised a large number of interesting topics and issues. Feedback on the event was uniformly positive. The intention is now to edit revised versions of the presentations for publication in a book to be edited by John Hudson, Nicholas Pleace and Roger Burrows and, hopefully, to be published by the Policy Press towards the end of 2000.


Roger Burrows, Event Organiser
Reader in Social Policy
University of York

1st February 2000.



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