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This month, the European Social Network (ESN) celebrated two key milestones in our work reinforcing and improving social services in Europe. We launched the Social Services Index (SSI) and held the 5th edition of the European Social Services Awards (ESSA) -two key initiatives to promote a more coordinated approach to social services in Europe.

Social Services Index - addressing the information gaps

Why did we launch a Social Services Index? We have been supporting the European Semester cycle of policy coordination between the European Commission and national governments for the past 10 years. These reports have covered progress in countries implementing children’s services, long-term care services or support services for homeless people in line with implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights principles. But we felt we needed to ensure the challenges we’ve identified in social services were better communicated to the European Commission so EU officers can use this information when they draft reports and recommendations for national governments. The Social Services Index fills a current gap since there was currently no such tool at European level and in many cases at national level, to answer enquiries about legislation, investment and coverage - three key pillars to understand better the situation of social services in our countries.

We knew there were issues with different social services concepts and definitions within countries; this is why we have insisted in the importance of focusing social services on what they do and promote in relation to social justice, social inclusion and people’s autonomy. We also identified how this translated into lack of information, different sets of information coming from multiple local, regional and national sources, as well as information collected on different years. This means the work of putting together a European Index is complex and drawing comparisons across countries is even more challenging, but it is indeed necessary as this process has helped us identify issues, which otherwise would go unnoticed.

For instance, is the increase in the numbers of children in child protection due to improved reporting or the lack of focus on prevention? In relation to supporting people in homelessness situations, there is a lack of investment in overarching prevention and social inclusion programmes, which leads to disjointed solutions with an over-reliance on shelters and expensive hotel accommodation at a very late stage. As for adult social care, we have seen a focus on moving towards a more person-centred, community and home-based approach over the past couple of years. However, the reality is that people’s choice is still significantly constrained due to a lack of home care and telecare opportunities that would allow people to remain in their homes for longer. Likewise, there is a need to explore further personal assistants and adult safeguarding within a stronger local ecosystem of care that includes a range of supports.

All in all, having a European Social Services Index is essential for improving awareness, transparency, accountability and efficiency in relation to social services both at European level and within countries. It will help governments better support people and make informed decisions about resource allocation and policy development.

Celebrating excellence and innovation in person-centred care

On 16 November 150 delegates from all over Europe met in Zagreb (Croatia) to discover the winners of the 5th edition of the European Social Services Awards (ESSA). There has been a great interest within the international social services community and we received 120 strong applications for this year’s Awards edition under the theme: ‘Promoting Person-centred Care’.

Person-centred social services ensure people are empowered to make decisions about their own care and support. Speakers throughout the night highlighted the importance of encouraging people in need of social services support to be the driving force in designing and delivering the services they need. This also involves supporting the workforce so that training is adapted to put people’s needs at the core and helping practitioners to facilitate, guide and support people in their care journey.

There are examples of good practice across Europe as to how social services have been promoting person-centred care. These include, for example, community-led initiatives supporting families in need, third sector led programmes reaching out to the most vulnerable in our communities, innovative training programmes for the workforce, research done with people using services to inform service delivery, or the co-creation of digital tools.

Enhancing personal approaches and co-creation in social services, accompanied by supportive workforce reforms is crucial for expanding the reach and accessibility of community-based social services. These messages brought to the surface at this year’s Awards Ceremony are also at the heart of the next European Social Services Conference (ESSC) which will take place in Antwerp, Belgium between 26-28 June 2024, on the theme of Co-creating Future Social Services.

These two ESN initiatives contribute to the development of a much-needed European framework for social services together with other initiatives we have put forward such as a social workforce strategy or a care guarantee for all. While respecting the principle of subsidiarity, there are several arguments in favour of the European Commission launching a more coordinated European approach to social services in light of free movement of people and workers, the European focus on identifying common challenges and sharing best practice, as well as the emphasis on social protection and social cohesion.