Since the Covid-19 crisis, one theme has become increasingly central to the European Social Network’s (ESN) work: resilience of social services. Alfonso Lara Montero, Chief Executive Officer of ESN told attendees at the opening of ESN’s Members Forum 2021: “In the wake of the pandemic, resilience is key when looking at the ways in which social services are transforming  - how they work and service the population groups that use them.”

As part of the Forum, ESN held a panel discussion with directors and senior professionals from public social services, policymakers and researchers to discuss what needs to be done from the European to the local level to ensure crisis-proof and sustainable public social services in the future.

Underinvestment in social services laid bare

Presenting a concerning context for social services, Mihai Palimariciuc, Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said that “the trend of a shrinking and greying EU demography is resulting in an increased demand for long-term care and a lower tax base,” creating “the perfect storm, of having to do more with less.”

Making the situation worse, added Mr Palimariciuc, is that “the percentage of GDP that is invested in these services has decreased over the years in the EU27.” The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the critical reality that social services are battling a higher workload with fewer resources.

Going digital as a solution?

The digitalisation of services is often touted as a cost-saving solution to this problem. Namely, that processes such as automatization can reduce the burden on social services and care workforce.

However, Mr Lara Montero raised the point that digitalisation must not be seen as an end in itself. Josée Goris, Senior Policy Advisor for Federal Public Planning Service on Social Integration in Belgium added that digital tools must be focused on the user, stating: “there has to be something in there for you.”

The role of the EU in building resilience

Katarina Ivanković-Knežević, Social Policy Director at the European Commission, highlighted the role the Commission could play in better supporting social services. She proposed that the EU semester country specific recommendations and monitoring should be shifted from a yearly to a multi-annual basis.

This approach, explained Ms Ivanković-Knežević, would take into consideration how much time is required for a policy reform to be implemented, as “realistic planning is key, leaving sufficient time to discuss and prepare with relevant stakeholders.”

The next panellist, Joke Schauvliege, Member of the Committee of the Regions (COR), conveyed the important conclusions in the COR outlook opinion [non-binding statement from an EU institution] ‘Experiences and lessons learned by regions and cities during the COVID-19 crisis’. Ms Schauvliege stressed that “the [European] Commission has to show more that they really need local and regional authorities, a framework needed to work together.”

One such mechanism was introduced by Ms Ivanković-Knežević, who announced the planned opening of an EU-funded social services helpdesk in 2022 that will provide concrete assistance to social services across the EU.

Conclusion

A key message in the discussions was the necessity of social services in mitigating the social consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. However, social services can only achieve this if they receive the financial support they need to design and build services that are effective for the needs of the communities they support. As the network for public social services, ESN plays a crucial role in providing a link for collaboration and discussion between planners and providers of services at the local level and the national as well as the European level.

Future ESN events on resilience

On December 8, ESN will host an online meeting about digitalisation in the social sector looking at how we can harness this form of transformation to improve the delivery of services. Next year, ESN will start a new social services resilience and transformation working group, which will focus on how to implement resilient solutions and strategies to support social services in practice.