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In a difficult economic and political environment, ESN has over the past three years worked with its members to address common challenges for social services, to share knowledge and to contribute to policy developments. The aim has been to help social services continue to improve the lives of those for whom they have a responsibility, including their care, protection and support. One hundred member representatives from 27 countries came together in Brussels to share achievements and contribute to shaping the future themes of the Network.

Challenges faced by social services professionals

Ahead of the meeting, we asked our members which aspects of social welfare reform they considered the most important. Their answers highlighted that ensuring service quality across all service providers was the most important issue. The second most important was prevention mechanisms. Kenneth Nelson from Stockholm University reviewed the trends that have impacted social welfare in recent years, including the increase in the number of private service providers and the transfer of social services responsibility from the national to the local level. Mr Nelson also addressed the impact of the crisis and the difficult task of meeting rising demand for services while maintaining quality standards within current funding constraints, (as documented by ESN in 2015).

Promoting partnerships and innovation

When it comes to addressing the social consequences of the crisis, representatives from public social services across Europe said that tackling social exclusion was the most significant issue, followed by reducing poverty and material deprivation. In an increasingly complex social services landscape, with a rising number of service providers competing for services contracts, public social services across Europe have tried to address the impact of the crisis through the development of partnerships. A stronger focus on community care and the implementation of innovative and promising approaches working with service users has been a primary feature.

Annette Scoppetta from the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research spoke of partnerships between private, public and civil society sectors as a key driver to respond effectively to social challenges. Ms Scoppetta illustrated this with an example from Austria, the TEP, or Territorial Employment Pacts, between employment services and social services working with employers and employees organisations to support labour market inclusion of vulnerable adults.

Service co-production with users

A key issue common to all the discussions was how to change traditional – often more paternalistic – ways of working with service users, their families and communities at large. Participants discussed ways to advance the concepts of person-centred services, co-production of services, and experts by experience through the exchange of practice in small group discussions. These small groups heard about best practice examples from across Europe. For instance, users may be part of networks or working groups aimed at improving service delivery for families, as is the case in Kortrijk (Belgium), or in shaping local housing policy, as is the case with the Traveller community in Dublin (Ireland). Examples of user-led organisations bidding for and providing services themselves, such as Inclusion Gloucestershire in the UK, also featured.

Creating conditions that would make service user engagement a reality is not exempt from challenges however. For example, developing an integrated approach to service provision based on individual needs, or ensuring the commitment and willingness to look at innovative and new ways of service delivery can be difficult to achieve. Another issue is the provision of adequate resources for the development of community-based services in a time of significant financial constraints.