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Public social services empower people

On 8 October, Alfonso Lara Montero, Chief Executive of the European Social Network (ESN) spoke in a workshop in the framework of the 18th European Week of Regions and Cities entitled ‘Empowering Services’. The session gathered representatives from different government levels, EU Institutions, service providers, and researchers to explore the empowering role that social services play for the most vulnerable in our societies.  

Defining social services as essential in legislation

Social services are on the frontline of promotive, preventative and intervention services to ensure the health and wellbeing of the people they serve. At the workshop, Alfonso emphasised that while we currently do not have a common definition of ‘social services’ in national legislation across the EU, during the pandemic it has become increasingly recognised that social services play a key role in supporting many of the most vulnerable in our societies. Therefore, public social services should be defined as ’essential’, alongside health and education, so that the workforce can continue services in person when necessary.

By empowering services, we empower the people social services serve. Public authorities have a statutory duty to care for vulnerable populations in our societies. This means welcoming, informing, providing a professional assessment of a person’s situation, and referring them to the right type of support or service.

Challenges faced by social services

Well-supported, appropriately equipped, empowered, and protected social services are central to mitigating the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social services build on their existing strong ties to children, families, and communities to rapidly respond in ways that are effective.

However, a live poll during the workshop showed that 58 % of workshop participants said that insufficient funding was one of the main challenges faced by social services and limited their capacity to empower the people they serve. This was a point stressed by Alfonso along with other factors, such as public social services being low in the list of priorities of policy and legislation and lack of investment in the workforce and the sector as a whole.

ESN member, Vienna City Council shared their experience of providing social services supporting young people. They highlighted how the city actively works to empower young people aged 15 to 24 through their services network with the aim of strengthening their personal development and improving labour market integration.

Among the conclusions from the workshop was the importance of making social services accessible for the most vulnerable. As we have previously highlighted in our work on inclusive activation, ensuring access to social services for those who are most vulnerable is crucial in order that they are fully included in our societies.  

Looking forward

Looking to the future, Alfonso highlighted the need to ensure that the National Reform Programmes, which Member States have been asked to submit to the European Commission in the scope of the Recovery and Resilience Facility, include investment in the social services sector and programmes supporting social inclusion.

The lack of investment in social services over the past years has had a big impact on the quality of social services. Specific investment in quality social services is particularly vital in view of the current pandemic and the social challenges that are arising as a result.