ESN's Spring Seminar 

ESN’s Spring Seminar 2011 was a major opportunity to share innovation in social services faced with rising demand and shrinking resources. It brought together some 120 senior managers, professionals and researches, half from Hungary and half, mainly ESN Members, from the rest of Europe.

It was at the invitation of Imre Nyitrai, Deputy State Secretary of Social Affairs, Family and Youth, that ESN organised this event in Budapest under the Hungarian Presidency of the European Union and in collaboration with the Ministry of National Resources, the National Family and Social Policy Institute (a Member of ESN) and Szoszak, a national NGO active in the social field. Mr.Nyitrai reviewed the state of social services in Hungary, saying that there needs to be an overall “change of attitude where we focus on users of services.” A new national social policy concept is due to published later in the year, which will outline planned reforms in this area.

The opening session looked at the varied impact of the crisis in different countries and regions of Europe, both in regards to the public finances of local and regional government and the well-being in different sectors of society. Noting the socio-economic gap between different parts of Europe, Krzysztof Nowaczek from the Committee of the Regions, said: “It’s an EU objective to increase territorial cohesion. Given that there’s some evidence that the crisis has increased disparities, the EU’s role is all the more important.” Dr. Nicolas Scharioth from Gallup Europe noted that “the future is more bleak for vulnerable groups” such as large families, older women, least-educated unemployed – people likely to need some sort of support from the welfare state.

The following two sessions highlighted ‘innovative responses’ from across Europe - fit for these ‘challenging times’. Key concerns were a) making better use of existing resources and b) making the case for investment in social services with an eye on long-term savings.

A number of interesting points emerged from these presentations:

  • The importance of looking after and investing in staff who are also facing the strain and dealing with higher and more complex case-loads
  • The importance of developing team-managers who are able to manage people, case-loads and resources well at the front-line
  • Seeing clients as ‘co-producers’ of services
  • The possibility that clients might need less help and support than professionals have traditionally thought
  • The importance of networking among local actors, perhaps especially in regions with very small municipalities
  • Exploiting the ‘tremendous know-how’ of front-line professionals to find untapped potential for innovation, where necessary with the help of the private sector
  • The need for an increased awareness on opportunities for public-private partnerships (PPP)
  • The need for clearer frameworks and better guidelines for public-private innovation (PPI)

Promoting innovation in social services, what delegates said:

Sarah Pickup, Director of Health and Community Services, Hertfordshire County Council, UK: “Innovation doesn’t happen on its own. Local authorities need to be triggering ideas and promoting strategic commissioning.”

Steinar Eggen Kristensen, Head of Social Services, Municipality of Aarhus, Denmark: “Innovation demands leadership. Innovation starts with ourselves. As leaders in this room we have to be brave even if we don’t know where our innovation and experience will take us. We have to be willing to take risks otherwise we won’t succeed in innovation. Even if we make a mistake, we still need to keep going.”

John Halloran, Chief Executive, ESN: “We ought to take more responsibility for innovation in what is traditionally a risk-averse environment.”

István Sziklai, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, Eötvös Lóránd University (ELTE), Budapest: “The financial crisis worked as a catalyst for change. This conference, therefore, is important because we can see the examples of good practice which can spread out to other countries.”

ESN Members met the next day to discuss two key issues further: resources – more with less and leadership and management. ESN will be launching a new working group to take forward some of the issues arising from the seminar later this year.

Presentations and papers from the seminar