In many European countries, processes of decentralising social services provision, funding, commissioning, and/or planning has been on the agenda for a number of years. The most recent, and perhaps one of the most wide-reaching such restructuring has started in the Netherlands in 2015.

Working with and closer to the people

One of the main rationales for decentralisation of social services is that the closer they are planned, commissioned, and provided to the people, the more responsive they are to local circumstances and demands. Moreover, by being more responsive and tailored to local needs, the expectation is that services are delivered more efficiently, meaning with better quality at lower cost. Early evidence from the Netherlands suggests that this is possible as many municipalities have managed to deliver services with even less than their already substantially reduced budgets, Henk Kosmeijer, Chairman of the Association of Local Governments for Social Welfare (LCGW), explained. Yet, more innovation is required to go beyond traditional service delivery to co-create services with service users and community organisations. New approaches are also needed to respond to new demand and challenges such as service delivery for refugees, demographic changes, technological innovation, etc.

Janet Menard, Deputy Minister for Community and Social Services in the Canadian Province of Ontario, shared an important lesson from Ontario’s devolution experience since 1998: when you change the system, she told delegates, change it in a person-centred way straight away, instead of decentralising first and then introducing a person-centred approach later on.

Overcoming silos

Speakers at the ESSC agreed that many of the potential benefits of decentralisation can only be realised if the silos that often impede better coordination at the national and regional level, are not replicated at the local level. Val de Souza, Vice-President of Social Work Scotland, emphasised at the European Round Table on the last day of the conference, the positive impact that the establishment of integrated joint boards has had in municipalities in Scotland. These boards bring together primary and secondary care, social care and service users to plan services. Since April 2016 they have also had a pooled budget putting them in a good position to develop services according to local needs.

Guaranteeing quality and equity

Of course, decentralisation is not a silver bullet. It requires local institutions and people to take on tasks and responsibilities that are new to them. Furthermore, a fine balance needs to be struck between giving municipalities and communities the freedom to innovate and try out new models of service delivery, and ensuring consistent quality and equity of services across a country. All too often decentralisation is almost synonymous with cuts to local government budgets with substantial impacts on social care and community services in particular, which risks reducing their work on essential statutory tasks instead of investing in people long-term through prevention and community-building programmes.

Being accountable

The importance of having distinct indicators and goals, clearly communicated to citizens, was emphasised at the ESSC by Eloy Cuellar, presenting on behalf of Nacho Murgui, Deputy Mayor of the City of Madrid. Local government and services need to be held to account by the citizens they serve. To enable this process to be fair and constructive, it is crucial to manage as well as to encourage expectations, David Brindle, Public Services Editor at the Guardian, concluded. Decentralisation is a diverse and complex process, but if done in an inclusive way with sufficient resources, it has the potential to revolutionise social services for the better.