Social Services in Europe - the big picture

By Adrian Adamski*, Poland

Note: This article is the first of a series of three articles that will discuses about social sevices issues in EU countries

In modernising social services to better respond to changing needs, societal challenges (for example population ageing) and financing constraints, national authorities are increasingly diversifying the ways in which these services are organised, provided and financed (eg increased decentralisation, outsourcing of certain tasks to private – profit or non-profit – providers). Consequently, a growing proportion of these services now come under the scope of Community rules on competition and the internal market.

In this new environment, public authorities, service providers and users have asked for clarification of the legal framework. A broad consultation process carried out over the last few years has shown that most difficulties relate to a lack of awareness or misinterpretation of the rules rather than dissatisfaction with the rules themselves.

Throughout the course of debates, the European Commision made it clear that a fairer and more social Europe must be the lifeblood of Union. The responsibility for this starts locally, regionally and nationally – and should include social partners at all levels in Europe. The EU has an important part to play to support these efforts, as shown by the European Commission's determination to put social priorities and social fairness at the core of everything it does.


The statement is - that through social services and social protection systems governments do invest – these are investments in people.

Administrative reforms and financing challenges

Administrative reforms as a key issue for social services. Planned or implemented reforms should  address four aspects:

  1. the distribution of responsibilities between the various levels of government; 
  2. social services financing; 
  3. differences between regions in the quality and availability of social services; and 
  4. issues related to staff management.

European Social Network (ESN) reports indicate that several planned or implemented reforms though the assessment of their efficiency is not always positive:  the administrative reform implemented in France over the past six years has failed to address the overlaps between services; in Belgium, state reform has led to difficulties in coordinating social service provision. Social service financing is highlighted as an important issue in most countries. For example, in the

Czech Republic, the amendment to the Act on social services aims to address differences in the financing and organisation of social services and create uniform financing rules across regions. However, the initiative consists of non-binding recommendations. Differences between regions are particularly evident in Romania, where the urban/rural divide remains a serious problem. Moreover, it is difficult to retain skilled and professional staff due to budget constraints, according to the representative of Romania’s Centre for Training and Assessment in Social Work.

Reforms of health and social care services: are still a key issue. Due to population ageing, the increase in health-related expenditure and budget constraints, healthcare reforms are central in virtually all EU Member States. In Belgium the key challenge declared was to deal with the growing number of people in need and the increasing complexity of these needs.

A key challenge is the integration of health and social services: attempts to achieve this are underway in several countries but difficulties persist. For instance, in Poland, the challenge is particularly pressing given the growing number of older people. The public long-term care system is not keeping pace with this process, and the gap is being filled, although partially, by private providers whose availability is, nevertheless, limited.

In Slovenia, a specific law has been passed to address health and social care integration: the Law on personal assistance of February 2017 that is to be implemented from January 2019. Personal assistance services will be managed by centres of social work and will cover home assistance concerning daily tasks, assistance at work and in education. People will be free to choose their personal assistance and to elaborate, together with the provider, a tailor-made implementation plan.

Deinstitutionalisation and the development of community care are topics that are taking a specific attention. These issues are again prominent this year in Belgium, Romania, Portugal, concerning the deinstitutionalisation of adults, people with mental health problems, people with disabilities, children and the availability of care services across the national territory. For instance, in Bulgaria, the process of deinstitutionalisation of adults is progressing and a special fund has been devoted to the setting up of new services. New projects have been set-up to provide integrated services covering both the health and social aspects of long-term care, in particular to support older people at home. The next step is the establishment of multi-disciplinary home support teams. The idea is to pilot the new services through EU funds and have them subsequently included in the new legislation on social services. Deinstitutionalisation of the Czech mental health care system is part of the psychiatric care reform, which has been in preparation since 2013. The aim of the reform is to improve the quality of life of people with mental health problems and to encourage the move from institutions to community care. 

When it comes to labour market integration, in majority of countries the most important issues are - the adequacy of activation measures and negative, incentives for employment, difficulties in integrating specific groups, particularly the long- term unemployed, the coordination between employment and social services. Finland NGOs, which are playing an increasing role in service provision, have expressed concerns about the marketisation of services for the unemployed, as these services are often not able to reach the most marginalised groups. In many cases, competences for activation policies (and employment centres) are regional while social services are managed at the local level, a circumstance which poses coordination problems. In Poland, cooperation between employment and social services is underdeveloped. More positively, in Bulgaria, the new centres for employment and social assistance (coordinating employment services, social assistance and social benefits) are showing positive results.



Mr. Adamski is graduated in Cracow University of Economics. He is the Head of the ESF Office in Bureau of Regional Development (Swiętokrzyskie Region in Poland).He is a member of Polish Interdepartmental Task Force on the Implementation of EU Structural Funds, author and project manager for numerous ESF and other EU funded Grant schemes projects. He is the region’s ambassador of transnational cooperation (Inclusive Europe project)