As delegates gathered for the first in-person European Social Network (ESN) seminar in two years, which was organised in Ljubljana during the Slovenian presidency of the Council of the European Union, Dr Erio Ziglio, Honorary Professor at the Health University of Applied Sciences Tyrol in Austria, defined resilience as “the ability of systems to transform and change in the face of adversities”.

Unfortunately, the economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have meant social services have undergone an enormous stress test of their resilience, one that shone a spotlight on weaknesses within the sector since the 2008/09 financial crisis. Under-investment in the wake of the financial crisis increased vulnerability for populations, such as children, people with disabilities and older people, and these were exacerbated once the Covid-19 crisis struck. In order to be better prepared to provide quality and continued care during future crises, the response of social services and governments must be one of significant transformation and investment respectively.

On 25 and 26 October ESN held its annual seminar in Ljubljana, Slovenia with the purpose of bringing together directors and senior professionals from public social services, policymakers and researchers to share policy and practice on how to make this response a reality.

Showcasing resilient responses by European social services

Seminar attendees learned of good practice resilience strategies and programmes from ESN members. For example, Joanna Macdonald, Deputy Chief Social Work Adviser of the Scottish Government talked about ‘The Promise’, a ten-year plan to align Scottish national policies and regulations with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Central to this human rights-based approach is the idea that “love is no longer the casualty of the ‘care system’ but the value around which it operates” in order to avoid any harm done to children through the system.

Anna Maria Vella, Clinical Chair of SEDQA of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services in Malta gave an example of how inclusive leadership improved workforce resilience. All staff on her team were invited to participate in the management decision-making process in response to the pandemic emergency. Empowered by having direct input, work satisfaction among staff rose to a higher level than pre-pandemic, despite an increased workload.

Harnessing the social dimension of National Recovery and Resilience Plans

In the closing session of the first day, the roundtable looking at resources needed for creating resilience in social services focused on how to ensure the National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRP) become a funding resource for social services at the local and regional level.

Maria Teresa Fabregas Fernandez, Director of the Resilience and Recovery Task Force, explained that national governments had to take the 2019/2020 EU Semester Country Specific Recommendations into account when drafting their NRRPs, among those were many recommendations on social reforms such as investment in deinstitutionalisation of care homes.

From the national perspective, Patricia Bezunartea Barrio, Director-General of Family Diversity and Social Services of the Spanish Ministry of Social Rights and Agenda 2030, told us that the majority (85%) of the investments from the Spanish NRRP will go to the regions, which will need to work with the municipalities on implementation. 

On the other hand, Virginie Lasserre, Director-General of Social Cohesion of the Ministry of Solidarity and Health in France, also referred to a coordinated approach between central government and regional health agencies for the distribution of NRRP resources. 

Putting people first

A key message underscored by speakers throughout the seminar was that resilience in social services means re-tooling the model towards a more personalised and needs-based assessment of the workforce and people who use social services. The transition from institutional to home and community-based care, powered by a well valued workforce, was identified as a central component for building social services provision resilient enough to meet future needs.

Changing the approach to care does not only work at a systemic level, but it also has a direct, positive impact on individual users of social services. In addition, there are knock-on effects for the services themselves, for example reducing workloads for staff through quality-of-life improvements for people supported by care services.