Social services are central to creating a caring, inclusive and productive society. ESN believes that this means seeing the person at the very heart of management and delivery of social services.

There is no common definition of social services for all EU countries. The 2010 Council conclusions on Social Services of General Interest ‘At the heart of the European Social Model’ highlighted that social services differ from other services of general interest as they are “person-oriented, designed to respond to human vital needs, generally driven by the principle of solidarity, they contribute to safeguarding fundamental rights and human dignity, non-discrimination and to ensuring the creation of equal opportunities for all, enabling individuals to play a significant part in the economic and social life of the society.”

Previously, the European Commission, in its 2006 communication on social services of general interest (COM (2006) 177), identified two main categories of social services:

Statutory and complementary social security schemes that cover the main risks of life, such as those linked to health, ageing, occupational accidents, unemployment, retirement and disability;

Other essential services provided directly to the person. According to the communication, these social services provide support for persons faced with personal challenges or crises, to ensure that they are able to (re)integrate in the labour market and in society as a whole, integrate persons with long-term health or disability problems in society, and social housing.

However, personal social services are difficult to define due to differences between countries but even more so within countries themselves. Some of these services are not always part of the statutory duties of public authorities though this certainly depends on the country, hence there are differences between regions and municipalities when it comes to their availability and quality. However, there are certain patterns.

We can distinguish two main groups of personal social services. The first group consists of services that are put in place for groups, support the development of the person or their autonomy, and promote conciliation of work and family life for relatives.

This group includes services such as early childcare that supports children’s development -particularly those children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds or having a disability, and long-term care services that support children and adults with dependency needs due to health impairments, disability, and loss of autonomy. These services are usually regulated and depending on the country they may be universal or means-tested. Both types of services play a role in conciliation of work and family life which is a key characteristic that is not always relevant for the second group.

Second, the other group consists of personalised support to safeguard the beneficiariesfundamental rights and facilitate their social inclusion as they support individual people or families with personal challenges or personal crises, such as debt, unemployment, drug addiction or family breakdown. Services included under this second group in the European Commission’s proposal are social work, counselling, advice, coaching, addiction rehabilitation, social rehabilitation, social housing, social inclusion, and crisis centres.

However, some of these services could also be included under group one since they may at least fulfil one of the characteristics; for example, addiction rehabilitation is well regulated and is put in place for groups in many countries. We could say something similar of social work. In both cases, though, these services do not have conciliation as their primary aim. Their main characteristic is that they respond to individual or specific needs or problems. As such, they may evolve over time as the needs of beneficiaries. Their regulation may depend on the responsibilities of the authority responsible for provision while implementation may take place in an integrated way; for instance, advice or coaching, family social work, unemployment and housing support. This means that the boundaries between the different types of services are blurred most of the time, since there has been a recent trend placing a focus on integrated provision. 

An additional important feature of social services is, that they can be economic or non-economic. This has an implication since services with an economic interest are subject to EU competition rules. When public authorities decide to outsource social services provision and this is the case for most personal social services, EU public procurement rules apply. Public authorities need then to balance the service ‘quality, continuity, accessibility, affordability, availability and comprehensiveness’ and ‘the specific needs of users’ with price.