ESN at the conference on the Social Investment Package

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Policy makers, researchers and civil society met in Leuven on 2-3 May to discuss the implementation of the Social Investment Package within EU policies and national welfare systems. ESN’s chief executive John Halloran and ESN member Steinar Eggen Kristensen represented the European Social Network in the discussions. The Social Investment Package, launched by the European Commission on 20 February, was welcomed by ESN for its focus on developing people’s potential.

The aim of the Conference was to discuss how to reform European welfare states which are under financial pressure, and how to implement social investment at local and national level. Joan Burton, the Irish Minister for Social Protection, opened the conference: “For too long people have talked about austerity – now is the right time to invest in the most valuable resource – which is our people.” Maurizio Ferrera, professor at the University of Milan, highlighted contemporary ‘social imbalances’ resulting, for example, from different levels of youth unemployment. He saw an urgent need to take action now to avoid “a democratic disaster” arising from the unpopularity of austerity measures.

Frank Vandenbroucke, professor at the Catholic University in Leuven, stressed the importance of integrated strategies: “There is a challenge of cooperation, but governments, agencies, regional and local authorities should speak and work together at the highest level to implement social investment.” He also observed that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all-solution’ for Member States: “Welfare states are different and we need to encourage Member States to develop and evaluate initiatives with outcomes.”

“We know that we are unlikely to be able to increase public expenditure, so the question is how do we reform public services so that they are more efficient and effective?” , asked John Halloran at the conference. He added: “Wonderful new concepts like social investment aren’t much use to the family of a severely disabled child in a sparsely populated rural region far from specialist health, social and education provision. We have to look very carefully at these gaps and work towards filling them in innovative ways.”

ESN had recently visited public authorities in Greece and Portugal and Cataluña in order to better understand the impact of the crisis on social services. In these countries, austerity measures and increasing numbers of service users have resulted in a shift away from an enabling and empowering approach towards a traditional model of welfare assistance and emergency support, such as food banks and social canteens.

ESN’s working group Leadership, Performance and Innovation works with concrete examples of social services management and evidence-based practice and sees social investment as a positive development. A member of the working group, Steinar Eggen Kristensen, Director of Social Services and Employment in the municipality of Randers, Denmark, presented some examples of local social investment at the conference. Steinar described how his municipality dealt with a 20% growth in service users. Social services in Randers invested in empowering service users, including children, people with disabilities and mental health problems have developed community-based care solutions and focused on effective service outcomes. He explained one example of their service redesign: “We invested 3 million Euro in the training and support of foster parents to reduce the use of institutional child care services – which also saved 7.5 million Euro in one year.” See presentation here.

The European Social Network will stay focused on sharing concrete practice examples of social investment and its thematic priorities such as investing in children, active inclusion and long-term care. ESN is already analysing the extent to which the Investing in Children Recommendation is consistent with national policy. We are also supporting the SPC working group on long-term care with its follow-up to the SIP. ESN’s upcoming Dublin 2013 Conference is a chance to refocus on ‘transforming lives’ in times of severe economic pressure on public services.