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The European Social Network (ESN) will hold a Members’ Forum on 20-21 April 2017, which will be a critical milestone in the preparation of the three-year strategy for 2018-2020. For the forum, ESN has chosen ‘the future of social welfare systems’ as the lead theme, for which four main topical pillars are: transformation of social welfare systems, growing inequalities, social innovation, and social inclusion. A preparatory meeting in Brighton on 21 February explored these four main pillars with a view to understanding the varied roles of local authorities across Europe. 

Eighteen member organisations and four external experts met with the ESN secretariat for a day in Brighton to discuss the four policy areas and ESN’s identity as a membership-based network rooted in the public sector. With statements and comments by members, external experts, and ESN staff, the meeting gave room for a wider reflection on what areas of work are important to the network. Attention was paid in the discussion to the critical roles of local authorities in the planning and implementation of services.

Social groups

ESN believes that public social services need to support vulnerable people. Vulnerable people are more exposed to risk factors and often face higher individual needs. In the selection of vulnerable groups, ESN reflects on the EU’s priorities and explores how it can contribute best to the future development of EU social policy:

  • Older people: Across Europe, older people constitute a growing group with diverse needs. At the meeting, Kenneth Nelson from the European Social Policy Network pointed out in what countries social welfare is unbalanced for different intergenerational groups, highlighting for example that insurance policies are more favourable towards older people in the  United Kingdom.
  • Refugees: In recent years, the refugee crisis has made a significant impact on Europe. This has forced local authorities ‘to play catch-up’ in the provision of services, argued Graham Owen from the Municipality of Trosa, Sweden. Regarding refugee’s integration, Lise Willer from the Municipality of Esbjerg, Denmark, underlined how the public sector is ‘still looking for the right tools’ to help refugees into jobs.  
Transformation and innovation

Senior officials in public authorities have the opportunity to shape the planning and provision of services. ESN has identified two major developments for their work related to ongoing transformations of welfare systems and an increased interest in innovative solutions:

  • Transformation: Europe’s welfare systems are changing, not least because of the lasting impact of the socioeconomic crisis. In those countries where public budgets were hit particularly hard, more cost-effective ways to provide services are being tested. User involvement in services is one of the options being explored, which can lead to cost reductions in the provision of services.
  • Innovation: Public authorities show an increased interest in developing new solutions for service delivery, be that for example by using technologies in developing telecare or by strengthening partnerships in community services.
Conclusion

The preparatory meeting was instrumental for ESN to lay the groundwork for the Members’ Forum on 20-21 April in Brussels. At the meeting the discussion about ESN’s future social policy priorities will involve the organisation’s entire membership structure. As a preliminary conclusion from the preparatory meeting, ESN will incorporate working strands on both vulnerable social groups and on specific issues for public managers.