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Building partnerships to improve lives was the theme of the European Social Network (ESN)’s 2015 annual conference, which took place in Lisbon on 6-8 July. With over 400 participants from 32 countries in Europe, Canada and Australia, the 23rd European Social Services Conference brought together social services directors, policy makers, practitioners, service users, academics and private sector representatives, who discussed how a wide variety of partnerships may bring best outcomes for users and society.

Opening the conference, Marianne Thyssen, European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, emphasised that “social services were a vital investment in Europe’s people and its growth and that integrated social services delivery was key to efficient support for those most in need”. Echoing the Commissioner’s words, Corinne Cahen, Luxembourg’s Minister for Family and Integration, highlighted the role of partnerships in achieving more efficient social services, and referred to the priorities of the Luxembourg’s Presidency, which started on the 1st of July: “We need new partnerships, networks and more efficient social services. Like this, we will improve people’s lives and build a truly social Europe”. Three sub-themes emerged as key in building successful partnerships to improve people’s lives: a life-cycle approach, local partnerships and the role of technology.

A life-cycle approach

From early years to later life, all levels of government can improve outcomes for people, their families and their communities by breaking down barriers and overcoming fragmentation. Co-creation and the involvement of relevant stakeholders from research, practice and service users were highlighted in the presentations.

We learned about PIPPI or Programme of Intervention for Preventing Institutionalisation in Italy, which focuses on supporting parents, when there are suspected cases of neglect, through a multi-professional and integrated approach between public authorities, social services and families. Participants also found out how employment and social services work together in Germany; e.g., in one-stop shops at local youth employment agencies and through case managers. We also listened to how the Dutch Centre for Long-Term Care has been assessing the challenges of integrating health and social care for people with chronic health and social care needs.

Local partnerships

Building partnerships between local services was emphasised throughout the conference and a number of inspiring practices illustrated recent developments in Europe. In Scotland, a partnership of CELSIS (Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children), the Scottish Government and Local Authorities has been key in reducing unnecessary delay and enhancing permanence for looked after children.

The Belgian cities of Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and Mechelen presented concerted examples of “proactive social action” by local social services departments to fight child poverty, protect vulnerable families and create networks for older people. Twenty-eight municipalities in Campania, Italy, have implemented the Unified Access Point, through which users benefit from a coordinated response from a multi-disciplinary team once needs have been assessed.

The role of technology

Increasingly, public authorities have been developing technological solutions with the IT sector to provide integrated responses to increasingly complex needs. Examples at the conference included, amongst others, Breeze-e, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and mobile solutions.

Developed by Northamptonshire County Council and a private company, Breeze-e is a portal for social services users that bring together the range of services and providers available in Northamptonshire within a safe environment so that users can choose the services they wish. GIS, which was developed by Esri, is used by local social services to help them analyse data and inform decision-making. Diona led a workshop to explain the implementation of solutions through phones and tablets to improve communication with social workers and clients.

Messages for the future

The final round table brought together representatives from the European Commission, National and Regional Governments, and National Associations of Social Services Directors, who discussed key messages about the shape of future social services:

  • At EU level, an integrated approach is needed to ensure that social inclusion is high on the agenda

  • For the Social Protection Committee, it is essential to go beyond exchange and focus on monitoring to guarantee policy efficiency

  • At national and regional levels, interinstitutional working groups at different governance levels are important in bringing about partnerships

  • For services, a focus on people and their local communities and outreach to all services is key to creating better outcomes.

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