Current challenges facing public social services in Europe are producing a major shift on the role of citizens and communities. Discussions at the 26th European Social Services Conference highlighted that empowerment of citizens is key. This includes enabling vulnerable citizens to have choice and control over their lives and enhance citizen’s participation in the communities. Service design is therefore shifting towards person-led care and innovative initiatives are taking place in communities involving citizens’ participation.

Moving towards person-led care

Innovative approaches to the personalisation of services are increasingly placing the focus of service design and evaluation towards the service user. Mayte Sancho, Director of Service Planning at Matia Foundation, Spain, invited social services to shift from focusing on the quality of social services to focusing on user’s quality of life.

To this end, the Scottish Care Inspectorate presented New National Care Standards illustrating how this personalised approach to social services can be carried out in practice. Their new care standards place emphasis on service users’ experiences and outcomes, with statements such as:

                I am asked about my lifestyle preferences and aspirations.

                I am supported to achieve these.

Rami Okasha, Executive Director of Strategy and Improvement at the Care Inspectorate talked about this as a person-led care approach. To implement it, the Care Inspectorate created joint inspections of services for children, which include specially-trained young inspection volunteers (aged 18 – 26) who have personal experience of care. These young volunteers, as experts by experience, contribute on how children and young people experience care and the difference it makes to their lives.

To this end, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has developed and applied human rights indicators to enable the assessment of the fulfilment of Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities across the 28 EU Member States. This research highlights remaining obstacles that prevent people with disabilities to live independently, whilst highlighting improvements already made to their quality of life.

As part of the National Transforming Care/Building the Right support agenda, Milton Keynes Council (MKC), United Kingdom, implemented a large-scale workforce development programme, giving care staff the skills, knowledge, and confidence to support individuals with behaviours of concern to live in their communities rather than in long term institutional care. In the twelve months that this positive behaviour support has been in place, MKC staff are reporting significant improvements in the numbers and the extent of challenging episodes. Moreover, many people with learning disabilities started performing daily life tasks and making independent choices about their lives.

Enhanced citizens’ participation in the communities

Athens has endured years of social crisis during which citizens started organising themselves to provide services for the most vulnerable. When Amalia Zepou became Vice Mayor of Civil Society and Innovation, she worked with the community to launch SynAthina, an online platform connecting engaged civil society organisations with funding opportunities, the local authorities and other organisations operating in the field of social services. Amalia underlined how the role of the local government shifts in the model towards being a change facilitator. This new way of empowering communities has led to the creation of mobile services for homeless people, reading groups for blind people, people with special needs and older people, and the renovation with EU money of an old building that is now the first social entrepreneurial hub in Greece.

Gipuzkoa County Council in Spain showcased their new model of governance based on co-generation and participation of citizens and communities via third sector organisations representing service users. Their 2016-2020 Social Inclusion Plan, presented at the conference, involves a dynamic, open and collaborative process that involves service users’ organisations in all stages of service design, provision and evaluation.

The Public Centre for Social Welfare in Harelbeke (BE) presented their “Hulste (be)zorg(d)t” programme, targeting people older than 80, living at home. Public social services work with volunteers, local associations and neighbours to visit them, providing informal care and placing them under radar of public social services in case they need further support.

EPIC presented their training project across municipalities in the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia to support the creation of social enterprises. Many have now been established, providing opportunities for the most vulnerable in their communities.


The economic crisis and the austerity measures that followed created severe challenges but also several opportunities for a renewed role for citizens and communities. Public authorities, including social services have sought greater opportunities to involve citizens and design services that respond better to their needs in a more efficient manner. This process has been enabled by fostering empowerment through the active participation of service users and people in their wider communities.

More information on the Conference speakers and workshops is available on the Conference website. Delegates can review all the presentation materials through the ESSC 2018 mobile app.