Children’s participation in Teledialogue

This paper was presented at the Centre for Participatory IT, Aarhus University the 18th of september 2014. The paper both presents the overall project and a specific analysis of children's participation in relation to an article submitted to CoDesign.

Lars Bo Andersen, Peter Danholt, Peter Lauritsen, Nicolai Brodersen & Kim Halskov
Centre for Participatory IT, Aarhus University
Children’s participation in Teledialogue

Teledialogue is a combined research and design project instigated by KORA (Det Nationale Institut for Kommuners og Regioners Analyse og Forskning) and researchers from the STS and PIT research centres at Aarhus University in collaboration with eight Danish municipalities.

The project is funded by the Velux Foundation and has been underway since 2012 and was officially launched in late 2013.

The stated purpose of Teledialogue is to utilise various forms of IT to strengthen the dialogue between placed children living in foster care, or at institutions, and the social workers at Danish municipalities who are formally responsible for overseeing their upbringing.

Currently, lack of resources often limits the contact between placed children and social workers to two face-to-face conversations per year - the minimum required by law.

Social workers struggle with a large workload and have limited time to follow up on children under their custody. Similarly, placed children find it difficult to reach their social worker through traditional means such as the telephone.

The scarce contact between social workers and children is a problem for at least two reasons:

  1. Social workers are responsible for monitoring the welfare and wellbeing of children, offer appropriate measures and carry out timely interventions.

  2. It limits the possibility of including children in decisions affecting their own life.

Teledialogue thus investigates whether some form of IT (chat, videoconferencing, texting, etc.) can strengthen the quality and frequency of communication between placed children and social workers.

Not to replace physical meetings but to supplement these.

Teledialogue is inspired by Telemedicine and distance education and the fact that some social workers on their own initiative have started using sms and other forms of mediated communication.

The ambition is to design a concept enabling social workers sitting at their desk and children in their room to easily reach each other without arranging formal meetings or driving across the country.

The design outcome is thus not software but an overall concept for the organisational, legal, economic, technical, communicational and, not the least, social dimensions for using IT in social work.

In order to create such a concept we are engaged in:

  1. testing different forms of software with different forms of uses across the eight municipalities

  2. using ethnographic methods to describe the perspective of children and social workers respectively,

  3. studying the legal, organisational and economic conditions for teledialogue to be viable,

  4. collecting experiences from similar projects in Denmark.

Teledialogue includes a hoist of different participants - from IT-departments to jurists.

Our most central participants, however, are children and social workers. There are about 24 children and 24 social workers participating across the 8 municipalities.

The process began this year with ethnographic interviews in each municipality and at the residence of children, and we are currently in the first out of three iterative test-runs.

Each test-run is concluded with a workshops where participants are invited to reflect on their experience and generate new ideas for other uses of the same software, for improving existing uses or for trying out something new entirely.

The first test-run utilises standard software such as video-conferencing and chat but later ones will experiment with other forms of communication such as colour coded welfare indicators and gamification.

Research contributions

There are several possible research themes in Teledialog.

  1. There is research into including users who are vulnerable and often struggle with various problems.

  2. There is research on how a context of legal conditions, economic scarcity, software vendors and diverse organisational setups constrain and interferes with the design process.

  3. There is the potential displacements and transformations following a design intervention which potentially may change how social workers and children see each other.

  4. And there is the overall governmentality involved in managing placed children in a welfare system.

Today, however, the focus is on one specific research contribution related to the concept of participation.

While it is clearly acknowledged that participation in practice is highly diverse and complex there is only limited theoretical interest in asking what is ‘participation’ - what does it mean and how to theorise it.

We have thus written an article [to CoDesign entitled ‘Participation as a matter of concern’] which poses the question ‘what is participation in Teledialogue if encountered by Actor-Network Theory’.

From subjects to networks

Participation, if considered with ANT, is rooted not in subjects but mediated in networks.

The consequence being that participation is detached from the physical human subject and attached instead to a vast network.

The consequence of that being that participation eludes participatory activities, it is not contained by them, and comes into play all over and often in rather surprising situations.

ANT is basically the claim that the world consists of ‘actor-networks’ continuously transforming and composing other actor-networks.

A participant in design is thus not an unified autonomous human subject but an actor-network composed by other actor-networks.

In practice, this means that participants gain the capacity to participate only in relation with numerous others who mediate and transform who they are and how they participate.

They are always set up as participants, so to speak.

Participation according to ANT can be investigated through two central notions:

  1. Action as overtaken; meaning that agency does not derive from autonomous subjects but emerges from many sources and is not easily locatable. Agency is produced as an effect of multiple others associated in a network.

  2. Participation as partially existing; meaning that there is no dichotomy between participation and non-participation but only different forms of participation unfolding throughout a design project.

As such, participation does not come into full existence at workshops only to disappear completely when writing articles or doing project budgets.

On the contrary, participation comes into partial existence in the very instantiation of a participatory project.

Let me illustrate participation as overtaken and partially existing with small examples of children’s participation in Teledialogue.

Participation as partial and overtaken in Teledialogue

Teledialogue was, amongst other, motivated by a report by the National Council for Children (NCC) in Denmark.

The report is based on interviews with 113 placed children and provides a collection of suggestions on how to improve their situation.

One suggestion is to improve their dialogue with social workers and to have social workers include them more in decisions affecting their own life.

Through the report, placed children came to participate in Teledialogue while the project was developed.

The report-children explicitly called for more contact with social workers rather than, say, pedagogues and they furthermore described computers, smartphones and social media as central to maintaining contact to other important people in their life.

While never physically present in our project, these 113 children gave Teledialogue its purpose of improving communication with social workers through IT.

The current participation of children is thus overtaken and premised by the participation of other children through a report.

In Teledialogue, children share personal and intimate information with social workers. There is thus need to be concerned with privacy and data security.

But this concern evades children directly and is instead dispersed onto system administrators, jurists, we designers and most importantly the Danish Data Authority (DDA).

Since children are talking to social workers (that is, representatives of the state) the management of privacy is inescapably overtaken by the DDA.

One short example: Some of the children are already using Skype to talk to their biological family about sensitive and private matters. They are happy with this and would like to use Skype to talk to social workers too.

But the DDA ruled out that possibility on behalf of children.

In their capacity of being placed children talking to social workers, their stance towards Skype is overtaken by the DDA who are not convinced that Skype is sufficiently secure (the same applies for Facebook and other popular social media).

Whenever there are placed children deciding on software, there is always also the DDA.

In Teledialogue, neither social workers nor children become participants without the mediation of others.

Social workers carefully consider and select the children who are relevant to include.

They take into account the current problems and challenges of the children, their age and history, their family and friends, their prior relationship to the social services department and the ways in which Teledialogue may potentially help remedy the situation of specific children.

The children that end up participating in Teledialogue are thus carefully selected on the criteria that they are right for the project.

They are recruited in an odd balance between being sufficiently capable to voice their opinion as participants and sufficiently vulnerable to need a more intimate relation to social workers.

However, what qualifies as being right varies greatly across the municipalities. Placed children have come to designate everything from troubled teenagers in special institutions over well functioning school children in foster care to children with special needs.

Consequently, there is now a Teledialogue focused on helping criminal youths, there are different versions of Teledialogue focused on the social welfare of smaller children and there is one concerned with educational completion.

The children’s participation is premised and mediated by their social worker and position in the social system in that social workers are acting to shape Teledialogue on behalf of children even before test-runs have commenced.

There is also another complexity to the participation of children.

A good deal of placed children want less, not more, contact with social workers. They struggle with the dilemma of being dependent on the social system while trying to escape the supervision and interference in their lives.

Some children cannot be contained as participants in the project - they simply do now want any dealings with us or social workers. Leave us alone, they say.

Others are willing to participate but overtake the report-children in adding a good deal of ambivalence to the project.

One girl, for instance, wants to participate but prefers her social worker to stay clear of her private life. She wants to be included in the project but on different conditions.

To her, Teledialogue should build trust rather than monitor welfare and solve problems. It is not for social workers to know her better unless they prove themselves first.

So the purpose of Teledialogue is slightly displaced from social workers including children in decisions affecting their lives to children trying to ward of social workers from their private life until mutual trust is established.

Although we are now down to individual children it is important to note that not even these are subjects. They too participate as networks.

For instance, as biological parents learned that their children would participate they started calling the project manager to inform him about the situation of their child as seen from their position because they too are affiliated, implicated and affected by children’s participation.

Some parents are now actively participating alongside their children while others have barred their child from participation.

Similarly, some of the young girls have boyfriends acting with them. One couple, for instance, come together even if only the girl is invited while another couple are arguing amongst themselves whether they want more dealings with social workers.

In summary: how to include a network?

We suggest that ANT is a productive resource for asking what is participation.

However, ANT also pose a major problem to participation because in each and every project, we are confronted with the insoluble problem of ‘how to include a network’ in design processes?

Who are speaking on behalf of who and who are speaking only for themselves? The network-participant is neither an individualised actor nor a trustworthy spokesperson.

While the physical human body can be contained in design activities the network has no end. It is always related to all sorts of other things (reports, boyfriends and Data Authorities) not present.

It is not possible to know what a placed child unrelated to anything and undisturbed by others would think of Teledialogue. ANT, in fact, raise doubts to the very existence of children who are not networks.

As such, ANT makes participation an insoluble yet productive problem. Insoluble in that it is impossible to fully include a network as a design participant yet productive in that this increases attention and care for participation as an always present, pressing and unfulfilled ambition.

As designers, or researchers of design, we are robbed from controlling or fully knowing the design process.

Instead, we are given the opportunity to stubbornly trace through the ways in which children, funding proposals, reports and paperwork, legalities, coordinating meetings, boyfriends and parents are interrelated trying somehow to influence and overtake the acts that are already overtaken.

As such, ANT does not contribute a theoretical model of participation or makes the complexity manageable.

On the contrary, ANT is a sensitivity towards participation as an always nagging matter of concern.