Digitisation must benefit the people
This conversation took place in a video conference during the early days of the coronavirus crisis. Keeping your distance is important these days. Distance and closeness play a big role when evaluating digital communication. How close can you be to someone if you’re "only” in a chat room?
Breidenbach: If we adapt our communication to the media we’re using, it’s possible to have intimate conversations online. We enable very touching and intimate encounters when we really focus on the other person and aren’t as distracted. A lot of therapy sessions are now taking place online and there are situations where people looking for advice from those around them feel safer and can disclose more than when they meet in person.
Welskop-Deffaa: I have also noticed that my relationships to the people in our organisation who I follow on Twitter and who follow me have become more direct. We communicate directly with one another and know about each other. That makes it easier for us to work as a team whose aim is to promote Caritas’ digital agenda. There’s a spirit of optimism that is reflected in the fact that more and more people in the organisation see how they profit from working on projects in a range of different constellations and are able to work together more efficiently across different hierarchies and organisational levels.
Breidenbach: Digitisation is now an integral part of our lives. But it’s a real challenge for many areas of the social sector. We have to see which digital services are up and running that offer great opportunities along the social value chain and where do we still need in-person services?
Welskop-Deffaa: One good example is online consultation which allows us to offer a high-quality service. For example, in rural areas with limited social infrastructure. There, it objectively improves the situation.
In 2019, Caritas emphasised "Social needs digital”. What experience have you had with this?
Welskop-Deffaa: I think that our campaign taught us to see the opportunities of digitisation without getting euphoric. For example, when it comes to using robots for nursing. They shouldn’t replace human contact. Quite the opposite, robots should facilitate heavy and laborious tasks in elderly care so that there’s more time for human interactions. Technology that helps people to use the toilet alone without someone else’s assistance enables more privacy. But it’s also important to keep a critical eye on these processes. Using robots may tempt us into increasing the workload for nursing staff. The increased efficiency mustn’t be at the cost of the employees.
Breidenbach: I think that’s a key aspect. We have to ask what we intend to achieve with the systems we create. Is the primary goal to achieve more efficiency, increase profits, and save money or to improve quality of life, ensure humane conditions, and other values?
Welskop-Deffaa: That’s where I think Caritas plays an important role. We need to get actively involved in the development of digital concepts and make it clear ethical concerns aren’t secondary issues. Ethics by design!
The ground rules for digitisation are often determined by several big corporations. What do you think of that development?
Breidenbach: I’m concerned about our dependency on the large communication platforms that we are using in the social sector. In some areas, we are pretty naive about handing over our data to commercial companies. It’s not like they’re interested in public welfare. Their primary goal is to generate ad revenue. Just like Facebook offers fundraisers to gain access to bank details because people are more willing to hand over sensitive data for a good cause than for commercial purposes.
Welskop-Deffaa: In a world dominated by these platforms, the name of the game is the winner takes it all. We’re also seeing a trend towards more centralisation, so it’s important to find a way to deal with that. We have to carefully consider whether and where Caritas should pool resources that were previously on a local or regional level just so we can compete with big platforms. But we also recognise that the public sector is also repositioning itself on these platforms and that the way the federal government and the states collaborate with one another is being restructured by the Online Access Act. That’s where we need to be very careful to ensure that our principle of subsidiarity doesn’t go under.
Breidenbach: One solution for the social sector could be to collaborate. Why don’t we pool our resources to offer technologies that are based on our values? To do that, social organisations would have to be willing to spend some of their budget on developing projects together. In my experience, a lot of people still have a hard time with that.
Caritas is venturing into unknown territory by expanding their online consultation, which is a step in this direction. What have your experiences with that been?
Welskop-Deffaa: In 2019, we agreed with our organisations and members that we would share the responsibility for the contents of online consultations and cooperate to ensure the funding for it. In addition, we want to make sure the technical framework can also be used by others. That’s in line with the principle of "public money - public code” since the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs is funding our project. How to maintain an open-source community or administer open-source licences are completely new issues for us. But one experience has been very striking: we need to be willing and able to provide continuous and sufficient funding for these kinds of projects.
Breidenbach: I’ve been following the topic of impact investing for a number of years, which refers to investments that have an ethical impact. Can we get capital from people who say "We want social and ecological change” and who are willing to forgo their financial returns? My experience with this has been overwhelmingly negative. Most people prefer projects that make them much richer but have little positive impact on the world and the environment. But I also have a critical view of institutional self-preservation. Of course, I’m also familiar with betterplace’s concerns that we also need to make sure of our refinancing. But personally, if I had good ideas for a digital and social ecosystem, I would be willing to share them with others, even if I see them as my competition. That works for big, shared visions.
Welskop-Deffaa: I want to bring the Caritas we "inherited” into the digital age. The concept of the welfare organisation is fascinating: it’s all about helping people in need, creating a place for volunteer work, and advocating for disadvantaged people so that politicians and society in general take them into consideration. The latter is one thing we are now trying to achieve when it comes to digital participation. But to do that, we have to understand which mechanisms exclude people from digitisation and which improve their chances of taking part. It’s extremely problematic when algorithms from the German credit-rating agency Schufa discriminate against people for the rest of their lives because they wound up heavily in debt during a personal crisis and are thus prevented from starting anew later on. That means we need to acquire expertise in internet policy.
Breidenbach: I agree. It will be an enormous task for Caritas to be competent enough to take part in the discussion. I often just see people complaining. That doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to have conversations in which the digital avant-garde feel appreciated, where they also profit from the conversations, and don’t see us as supplicants, as the "socially minded” who just want to talk about data privacy. At the same time, the social sector needs to recognise that it’s not just a matter of technology and knowledge but that there’s often also a cultural dimension. If an organisational culture isn’t set up for sharing knowledge, if people don’t see the advantages of doing that and want to keep what they know to themselves, then building great tools and knowledge platforms will be worthless. Digital change begins in our heads and in the everyday culture of organisations.