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Almost 600 social services leaders from 35 countries came together in Hamburg to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the European Social Services Conference. With the theme Rethinking Recovery, it focused on how social services can use the innovations put forward during the Covid-19 pandemic to continue their transformation further and ensure they are both resilient and better prepared for future crises.

From the financial to the Covid-19 crisis and now the refugee crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social services have heroically jumped into action, to ensure continuity of care and support for those in need. They have done so in many innovative ways; how these innovations become structural is a strategic choice to make in terms of organisational changes, workforce recruitment and development, or building individual and collective resilience -the three pillars of our discussions on recovery throughout the conference.

Panelists recognised the multiple challenges, social services have been facing recently. As highlighted by Jan Vrbický, Social Services Director at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in the Czech Republic: “In the past 2 years we have had three crises – the pandemic, and now the war and energy poverty. Social services are at the frontline to respond to these crises”. Indeed, social services organisations have been at the frontline of the public response to the pandemic, which led to new and innovative, digital, agile, and remote ways of working so that care and support could continue to be provided for vulnerable children and families, people with disabilities, the homeless and young and older people. Examples of these organisational innovations were presented throughout the conference and included inter-sectoral networks to support vulnerable children, the development of cross-sectoral assessment and indicators measurements, a consent service utility, predictive analytics for the reduction of vulnerabilities, data driven approaches to identify at risk families, or investments in home care amongst others.

Yet despite these innovations many people who were in contact with social services disappeared from the radar of public services during the pandemic, hence the opportunity to invest in technology will allow social services to be more present but also to break down silos between them. “We cannot be prisoners of how the government designed services” highlighted Petra Lotzkat, Hamburg’s State Secretary. Like investing in technology, breaking services fragmentation is a strategic choice, but also a critical decision to be made by policy-makers. Flexibility was highlighted as crucial if we want to keep up to our current challenges and be forward looking to a system where people who use social services and the professionals who work with them can access their data as part of a trustworthy relationship.

But “how can social services build that relationship if they are battling a lack of funding?” asked Sinead Kane, who has had experience of care throughout her life. Indeed, social services across Europe share a common challenge – recruiting and sustaining their workforce to meet rising demands for social care and support. Ivailo Kalfin, Director at Eurofound, the EU agency for employment and social conditions, urged decision makers to make a strategic choice - make the sector more attractive: “We need better employment conditions, investment in wellbeing and improved possibilities for career development."

Some have made the choice, whether investing in innovative childcare, social care leadership programmes and wellbeing strategies to attract young people  into the profession, developing new professional roles and investments in home care, co-production and specific training programmes are some examples of the decisions made to further support and engage the workforce.

During the conversation, it became clear that resilience is very much related to a key concept in social work and social services -needs assessment. The ways in which social services decide about individuals support have been evolving from risks to assessing the needs and assets of the individuals, their families, and communities. Examples we learned at the conference include the development of cross-sectoral assessment frameworks, indicators, and monitoring tools as well as protocols and new professional roles.

We found out during the discussions that it is time for a paradigm shift in our models of care and social services to make them more resilient and crises-proof. This shift requires an integrated approach across organisations to respond better to people’s needs. It also requires that we adapt our ways of working by developing workforce skills to think and value new collaborative approaches, professional roles and networks, and increase the attractiveness of the sector. A model shift requires that social services programmes are supported by digital means but also that these are co-produced with the end-users. Finally, this is all about learning and adapting to respond best to people’s social needs, hence people who use services need to be meaningfully involved throughout the process.