Contemporary issues in the public management of social services in Europe

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Good leadership and management are essential to the successful development and implementation of public social services and for achieving better outcomes for service users. Building on the discussions of the ‘Leadership, Performance and Innovation’ working group, the European Social Network (ESN) publishes the final paper in a series of four public management papers to outline the challenges and opportunities for leadership and management in public social services.

In difficult economic times when leaders and managers in the public sector are facing greater demands with shrinking resources and making difficult decisions regarding budgets and organisational change, it is important to consider the qualities, skills and support needed by directors and managers to be able to deliver quality, sustainable and efficient social services. If social services are to work well, there should be well-trained leaders and managers at all levels in order to ensure that they inspire and empower their staff, address the needs of service users, facilitate cooperation between sectors and use resources effectively and efficiently.

The aim of this paper is to outline the perceptions, challenges and opportunities for leadership and management in the social services sector. It draws on established theories of public leadership and management, exploring the meaning of the concepts of leadership (setting and communicating the direction of where the organisation is going) and management (the process allowing an organisation to achieve its goals to a consistent level of quality). It looks at the learning and development culture for leaders and managers in social services drawing on examples from the United Kingdom and Austria and discusses the challenges leaders and managers face in dealing with change in light of the economic crisis, touching on the issue of ethical limits and outlining the importance of having the right support.

The paper also draws on the experiences of the social service directors and senior managers within ESN’s ‘Leadership, Performance and Innovation’ working group. “If I had some advice for social directors managing during this crisis, it would be that you have to champion the idea that it is still possible to make a difference. You have to go back to your priorities, to the public interest, and act accordingly”, advises Marie-Paule Martin-Blachais, Director General of the National Observatory of Children at Risk (ONED) in France.

Public sector leadership carries with it a unique responsibility to balance values of social justice and human rights with contradicting political and economic forces, as well as to ensure clear accountability and efficiency of public services. Investing in a continuous learning and development culture where leaders and managers of social services feel supported is essential to ensure that social services deliver better outcomes, even in a challenging political and economic environment.

If you wish to contribute your experiences and thoughts on the topic, please join our discussion on LinkedIn on leadership and management in social services.

The report series ‘Contemporary issues in the public management of social services in Europe’ is based on the work of ESN’s working group on Leadership, Performance and Innovation and outlines four key challenges for directors of social services and senior professionals across Europe: Responding to the economic crisis and austerity; Innovation, research & evidence-based practice; Working with education, health and employment: recognising a shared agenda; Leadership & management in social services.