Debate of the future of the social welfare

It is not often that a paper written in a national context is broad enough to be valuable for all those thinking about the future of the social welfare system across Europe, including in the EU context. This thoughtful and deliberately provocative paper (read in English or français) was written by members of an association of local and regional service managers (ANDGDGARD1). “We believe that a topic as important as [this] deserves much more than just a muddled consensus,” the authors write, seeking to provoke public debate. It reflects on the shortcomings of the system, sketches out ideas for reform; throughout it pays particular attention to the role of the Conseils Généraux.

They go on to note four main shortcomings of the French welfare state:

  1. Philosophical: individualism has gained ground in the welfare state in the form of individual rights for each citizen, so reducing people’s willingness to support each other.
  2. Regulatory: structures have accumulated to address each different dimension of a citizen’s problems, rather than offering personalised and support in a holistic way.
  3. Social: the growth of risk-aversion means that social services are less able to trust service users and help them use their own resources to improve their lives.
  4. Financial: public debt, changing demography and local tax laws mean that the welfare model has reached its limit from a financial standpoint.

ESN believes that these challenges would be recognisable to most of its Members around Europe, though the way of describing the issue would vary. In international social policy, the rights-based approach has taken hold: the UN conventions on the rights of the child and of people with disabilities are increasingly influencing policy and practice. Within the quite broad UN Conventions there is room for the user and the professional together to devise an individual plan. The French paper shows that this is difficult within a national welfare system, which outlines rights to certain benefits against tightly defined criteria. The EU Commission has recently highlighted the potential of one-stop-shops to help service users navigate the multiplication of structures.

Returning to the French paper, the authors continue by outlining three ways forward for France:

  1. Reaffirm the need for rights guaranteed and financed by the State.
  2. Better mobilise users’ capacities (both individual and in families and communities).
  3. Foster social development, including in the economic realm.

If the paper has a gap, it might be its lack of attention to France’s non-governmental welfare sector, particularly in the area of social development.

ESN welcomes this contribution to the debate of the future of social welfare from local government managers. It would be interesting to see whether other ESN Members, especially associations of social directors, will publish similar reflection papers, as governments continue to respond to the financial and other pressures on welfare models.

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1This is the French equivalent of the City Manager or Chief Executive, i.e. the principal civil servant in charge of the local administration, in this case the Départements.