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‘The future is local’ was the title of the European Social Network (ESN)’s 2016 annual conference, which took place in The Hague on 20-22 June. This event featured over 320 participants from 36 countries in Europe as well as Canada, Australia and South Korea.

Opening the conference, Jetta Klijnsma, Secretary of State for Employment and Social Affairs of the Netherlands, which held the EU Presidency between January and June 2016, presented the EPSCO conclusions led by the Dutch Presidency on fighting poverty and social exclusion. Ms Klijnsma argued that there are far too many people who live at risk of poverty or social exclusion across Europe, people who are not just deprived of money but of opportunity.

With almost half of EU countries engaged in some form of territorial reform, improving services at local level by empowering communities to fight poverty and social exclusion emerged as key themes for the design and implementation of local strategies for social cohesion.

The ‘d’ word

The decentralisation of social services was a key theme at the conference. Across Europe, the decentralisation of social services provision, funding or commissioning has been on the agenda for years. The most recent of these reforms started in The Netherlands in 2015. The rationale behind decentralisation is that the more that services are planned with citizens in mind, the more responsive they are to local needs and circumstances.

However, decentralization is not a magic bullet. A key question from attendees was whether strategies driven by citizens’ needs at a local level could lead to regional disparities. Too often decentralization is also synonymous with cuts to local government budgets impacting on community based services and leading municipalities to focus exclusively on their statutory duties rather than prevention and community building. René Paas, former Chair of the Association of Employment and Social Services Directors in The Netherlands (Divosa), argued that “thinking in silos, excessive bureaucracy and attempts to control and to not allow municipalities to be different are decisive factors in making decentralisation fail”.

Empowering communities for better outcomes

By shifting responsibilities from the central to the local level, there has been an increasing recognition of the role that communities play in delivering solutions to social challenges. Despite attempts made in the past by politicians to dismiss the role communities play, it emerged from the discussions and presentations that co-production and active involvement of service users and citizens as a whole can lead to better societal outcomes.

This represents a change in mindsets. Shifting away from a paternalistic approach implies recognising communities’ social capital through a process that Cormac Russel (Nurture Development, Ireland) described as a ‘mutuality paradigm’. Ahmed Aboutaleb, Rotterdam’s mayor, highlighted that communities need a “strong government that encourages and nurtures people’s talent through a social contract empowering individuals to be active and shape their local communities”. Eloy Cuellar of Madrid city council introduced us to the implementation of a new bottom-up approach in which “the neighbourhoods take decisions, which are then brought up to the council for assessment”.

Ultimately, “We need to build confidence in people to make sure that they are able to contribute to society”, requested Rich Amos, service user and self-advocate from Gloucestershire (England).

Local partnerships for social inclusion

In the current context with 24% of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion across Europe and shrinking public resources, discussions highlighted the need for local strategies to promote an integrated approach to social inclusion and social cohesion.

The social community teams in the Netherlands are a good example of integrated teams of professionals working closely together at neighborhood level to provide or coordinate services for those who need support in a single, central and easily accessible form.

Messages for the future

The final round table brought together representatives from the European Commission, National and Regional Governments, National Associations of Social Services Directors as well as third sector and users’ representatives, who discussed key messages about the shape of future local social services. A summary of these is listed below.

  1. While decentralised services were recognised as more responsive to local needs, too often decentralisation is also synonymous with local government budget’s cuts, which are pushing social workers solely to their statutory duties of protection. Therefore, there is a need to rebalance duties and take care of community work.
  2. There is a need to apply a change in paradigm, which measures not only outputs ‘but also outcomes, with case management defining input whilst programme management takes care of outcomes.
  3. At EU level, the future Pillar of Social Rights should follow a life-cycle approach and account for social adequate standards in terms of income and social services.
  4. At local level, there is a need to review quality indicators for social services including those accounting for the participation of users and citizens as a whole.

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