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Deep organizational changes in the structure and delivery of social services continue to challenge public authorities responsible for social services and providers. However, recent events  have shown that these changes are necessary to improve the quality of services and ensure they are prepared for crises of any kind. On the one hand, creating a consistent and reliable action plan for each social service client requires close cooperation between professionals from various sectors, including welfare, health, justice, and education. On the other, the success of the planned activities depends on the continuous delivery of services and care and on-going monitoring of their effectiveness. These demands require putting in place innovative channels for contact with clients and digital tools for data collection and processing. All these themes were discussed at the 30th European Social Services Conference this month in Hamburg.

Social services coordination

“Facing the pandemic, we experienced a boost of innovation in social care: we organised 'walks and talks' with clients, we established new professional networks, we collaborated across sectors. Let’s maintain these good habits” said Lotte Henriksen, Director of Social Services in Aarhus, Denmark. The urge to break down silos between services was echoed by Petra Lotzkat: “We cannot be prisoners of how the government designed services. We should end the fragmentation of social services, as it is very difficult to take one euro from one type of service and move it to where it is more needed.”

Designing a single, overarching plan of support instead of multiple fragmented services requires bold thinking and flexibility from everyone involved in the process. However, not everyone knows that special tools are available that can help social services go through this (r)evolution more easily. One such project – the Case Compass Toolkit - was presented by Francesco Cenedese, from the World Bank, during the first plenary discussion: ‘Supporting Strategic Change and Decision-Making’.  This free toolkit supports public authorities in developing a cross-sectoral case management information system.

However, as Mr Cenedese emphasised “No system will replace the necessity to establish local coordination  and protocols between different agencies to follow complex cases.” An  example of one such successful coordination was presented during the workshop ‘Living the way I want: Hamburg’s solutions to integration of support for people with disabilities. ’During the workshop, local government and civil society representatives discussed how various agencies in Hamburg are working together to help those in need answer the question ‘What kind of life do I want to live?’ The answer, owned by the clients of the services, should guide all those involved in support activities, so that the services provided are tailored to the needs of the beneficiary, rather than being the result of a system design.

Fariborz Pakseresht, Director, Oregon Department of Human Services in the US, pointed out to one important facilitator of cooperation – better exchange of digital data: “Every citizen should have a social portfolio, and just as different doctors can see a patient's medical history, social services should have the similar data available, when they take care of clients.”

Social Services Digitalisation

Digitisation of social services by both public and private organizations has been one of the core themes for innovation in recent times as well as during Covid-19. All actors involved in the development and delivery of social services are increasingly finding digital solutions to reach larger numbers of people with different needs, to ensure better management of social services resources and improve people’s experience of services provided.

The key questions on the design and implementation of digital tools was the focus of the ‘Let’s Go Digital’ session. One main challenge of designing digital solutions for social services professionals is ensuring they   facilitate collection and management of data and information. Pippa Young and Joke Wiggerink, from Elia International, presented an IT solution that, thanks to co-design and consistent practice, “social workers indeed want to use and has become owned by the practitioners” resulting in improved collaboration and time saving. Digital solutions are also key to reaching increasing numbers of those in need more efficiently. Toni Codina, from iSocial, presented three mobile apps including FLAPP! which enables young people with emancipation and inclusion needs to receive more individualised and direct support, while securely storing the documentation concerning the legal procedures they need to undergo.

Time for a paradigm shift in organisational ways of working

Redesigning social services has proved to be essential to tackle current and future challenges that, while already present before 2020, have undoubtedly been exacerbated by recent crises. Those challenges require an integrated approach and improved coordination across services to respond better to people’s needs. Digitalisation is an important ally in this journey, yet it must be accompanied by enhancement of social workforce’s competences; openness to cooperation with specialists from other sectors and a type of leadership that encourages (re)learning and adaptation.


By Rebeca Madruga, Project Manager & Magdalena Kolczynska, Junior Policy Officer, European Social Network