Decentralisation: changing places and communities

With almost half of EU countries engaged in a territorial reform in recent years (see our article on decentralisation), new challenges and ways of working together have emerged. Local communities are increasingly expected to bridge the gap between national governments giving up a growing number of responsibilities to the local level. In the Netherlands, "Social community teams" gather all professionals and stakeholders to deliver integrated solutions. In the UK, social workers and social services work alongside less traditional stakeholders such as hairdressers and volunteers from Age UK, a major charity working older people, to prevent loneliness amongst older people. In the Netherlands, the "think and do tank" Kennisland has included a night club owner in their youth intervention team. As emphasised by Chris Sigaloff, Kennisland's Director, "More than creating new structures, we need to create new ways of communicating and interacting".

User involvement and collective knowledge creation

To achieve better outcomes, co-production and the active involvement of users and citizens seems key. In this regard, Sasha Haselmayer (Citymart) presented new forms of public procurement that empower communities while improving outcomes. In Barcelona, the ‘Open Challenge’ launched by the City Council received 119 bids from 55,000 citizens and entrepreneurs, created 12 new businesses and resulted in 30% lower costs and higher quality than traditional methods. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country affected by corruption and unemployment, the Mozaik Foundation has worked hand in hand with municipalities and local youth to develop youth-led community projects.

Empowering communities through ICT-based solutions

A new way of working together and sharing information, observed all across Europe, is through integrated services, with the support of ICT (information and communications technology). In Finland, the Apotti programme has created a shared information platform between professionals. There is strong evidence that on top of efficiency gains, ICT is a major driver for sustained, incremental change. At a micro-level, it benefits citizens and patients by increasing their independence (notably through assistive technology and tele-care), but also carers by optimising the use of their caring time, allowing them to focus on those who need it most. In Odense, Denmark, for example, carers check regularly on people with disabilities living in their own homes through video conferencing. The European Commission's Joint Research Centre has produced a "Knowledge Map" of over 420 such ICT-enabled social innovation initiatives.

A change of mindsets 

The empowerment of local communities represents a change in mindset, and can be a "culture shock" - according to Henk Kosmeijer, Chairman of the Dutch Association of Local Governments for Social Welfare (LCGW). According to Cormac Russell (Nurture Development, Ireland), a "mutuality paradigm" needs to take place. While shifting away from a paternalist approach, we need to recognise the social capital present at the local level. "What we need is more community development", continued Mr Russell, when referring to the "demonstration sites" he helped create to support people's deinstitutionalisation process in Ireland and ease them into independent living. In Ireland, communities came together and "connected" increasing the interdependency of services, making independent living happen.

Conclusions

Taking into account individual needs and changing communities, a number of messages for and from social care and services directors emerged throughout the conference. Here are a few of them:

  • Make local authorities responsible again
  • Invest resources and time in social workers
  • Build supportive management systems to deal with evidence and enhance informed decision making
  • Find the right balance between local authorities "duty to care" and people's independence and freedom of choice
  • Balance community needs, individual responses and the uniformity of regulation and quality standards

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