Cooperating in a competitive world

Cooperation between different services and sectors – if not full integration – is an important goal for many social services systems in Europe. However, many find themselves in a world where competition plays an ever more important role. Procurement and commissioning processes often force organisations to compete against each other for contracts, and preserving an organisation’s ‘unique selling point’ can be seen as being threatened by too much cooperation – or  integration. How do we address this tension between cooperation and competition?

The answer is far from simple, but focusing on person-centred services can be an important incentive for cooperating with other providers, commissioners, and user advocacy organisations to achieve the best outcome for the user. Ms Hanne Denoo from the social services provider in Kortrijk, Belgium, told the audience at the Members’ Forum about how they tackled the issue of having a vast number of different organisations involved in the provision of social services, a situation that had created a system difficult for service users – and professionals! – to navigate.

Ms Denoo explained that, starting with the user perspective, they created the MISSION project aimed at integrating service delivery for disadvantaged families in Kortrijk. This was done through a ‘multi-disciplinary multi-actor network’ with private and public providers and service users. With this bottom-up approach they are enabling systematic change and advise authorities to achieve service integration that works for the families.

The dos and don’ts of service user involvement

Most providers and commissioners of social services agree that involving service users in the planning, implementation and evaluation of services is important. But how can service users be involved in a meaningful way and what obstacles and risks do services have to handle in this context?

A panel discussion on social inclusion and service user involvement at ESN’s Members’ Forum brought together practitioners and experts by experience to discuss the opportunities and difficulties of involving service users.

If your user satisfaction survey always shows almost 100% satisfaction, you may not be asking the right questions, Luis Berrios Novoa from Barcelona County Council told the audience based on his experience working with older people using telecare services. Embracing critical feedback as an opportunity for improvement requires commitment and confidence, but it can be a very effective tool indeed, he said.

In England, the user-led organisation Inclusion Gloucestershire works closely with the County Council to ensure that quality checks of service providers always include somebody using a service similar to the one being assessed. Christopher Haynes from Gloucestershire County Council told the audience how difficult changes in the power relationships between those providing and those receiving services had been but that these were essential to moving to truly user-led service provision. He told attendees that it had also been unsettling for many professionals. However as Jack Beech, CEO of Inclusion Gloucestershire, added, building trust between users and professionals, giving users a voice and establishing shared values and principles, has been essential to ensure that services enable users to exercise choice and control.

Listening benefits everyone

Representing the Irish Traveller Community in Dublin, Winifred McDonagh shared her experience of being involved in shaping the social housing policy for her community together with the City Council. She emphasised how important it was to feel listened to by the Council but also how difficult it can be for service user representatives if they have a lot of responsibility but no power. Moreover, representing the interests of a diverse community was inevitably difficult and could create tension that had to dealt with, she said.

Dublin City Council was represented at the Forum by Anne Helferty. She stressed that the service provider needs to be fully committed to the process and willing to hear what service users have to say. This requires the council to be flexible and willing to look at new and innovative ways of delivering services, she said. Despite numerous challenges, Ms Helferty concluded that involving the Traveller community had brought many positive changes. Service users are more confident in making decisions. There has been a reduction in conflicts between tenants and also improvements in the housing conditions of the Traveller community. The Council has benefitted from being able to target support more effectively.