Every citizen should have access to quality services, such as early childhood education and care, long-term care, housing, education and training or healthcare.
Those services fulfil an enabling function, in particular for persons in vulnerable situations caused by poverty, health or housing status or other vulnerability.
Additionally, the persons in vulnerable situations should be provided with social services, aimed at social inclusion.
Examples of these services include: social work, counselling, coaching, mentoring, psychological support, rehabilitation, domestic violence intervention and prevention. Those services provide an important support leading to inclusion in society, and, if possible, in integration in the labour market.
Social services are unevenly and unequally developed across the EU.
The prevailing challenges in the sector are diversity across and within the Member States, including scattering of competences across administrative and policy levels, underfinancing and a lack of quality assurance or standards.
Due to these challenges, the implementation of the third strand of the Active Inclusion Recommendation dedicated to enhancing access to quality services for persons excluded from the labour market has been slow.
More attention has been dedicated to cash benefits than services, which design, financing, delivery and evaluation are typically spread across different levels of government and involve different actors.
While important differences exist among the Member States, significant regional disparities and overall inequalities also prevail. Importantly, as social inclusion services often serve as an entry point into the social protection system.
Therefore, the fact that people at vulnerable situation have no or limited access to targeted social services impacts their overall access to other important public services, such as healthcare or training.
Quality of social services is a common thread throughout 20 principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights, be it in the area of equal rights and access to labour market, fair working conditions or social protection.
In 2008, the EU’s active inclusion recommendation asked governments to develop a comprehensive strategy based on three social policy areas of adequate income support, inclusive labour markets and access to quality services.
Particularly on access to quality services Member States were recommended to ensure the provision of social services through assuring their availability, equal access, investment in human capital, integrated delivery aimed at comprehensive measures, users involvement and monitoring performance.
Social Investment Package
The Social Investment Package undertook a first stock-taking of the implementation of the Active Inclusion Recommendation and provided further recommendations on its effective implementation.
The package recommended that services should be delivered in a personalised and integrated way. Integration of services – according to the package - would be a step towards more effective and efficient social services, a prime example for social investment.
Integrating social services can improve both their efficiency and effectiveness. This approach could have a positive impact on avoiding duplication and loopholes in the social services system, increasing its outreach as well as making it easier to pool information and knowledge, and facilitating the identification of needs and appropriate responses.
The 2018 study on integrated delivery of social services provides a comprehensive analysis and assessment of reform processes focused on integration of social services aimed at the activation of minimum income recipients in the labour market.
It is complemented by a practitioners’ checklist providing concrete guidance and tools, as well as insight into the rationale behind, and the connections between the elements of service deliver,
The Commission also engages in discussions with Member States about ways to enhance effectiveness and efficiency of social services in the context of the European Semester.
Through the Country Specific Recommendations of the European Semester, the Commission regularly focuses on sustainability of the provision of social services, including their access and availability.
Social Protection Committee
The Commission follows-up on the implementation of these recommendations together with the Member States in the context of the Social Protection Committee multilateral implementation reviews, where the Member States respective actions are discussed in detail.
Moreover, work on further improving quality of social services is regularly undertaken by this Committee, for example through Peer reviews aimed at bench-learning and exchanges of good practices amongst the Member States.
EU rules and Commission's initiatives
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 (for example, 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 EU rules on competition and the internal market, as well as on public procurement, on which guidance has been updated to take into account social considerations.
Interest has been growing among public authorities, services providers, users and other stakeholders in quality of social services.
The Commission supports the development, (within the Social Protection Committee) of a Voluntary EU Quality Framework providing guidelines on how to set, monitor and evaluate quality standards. The framework sets out a wide range of quality principles for national, regional and local level administration and service providers, addressing broadly all social services.
European Social Fund +
The European Social Fund+ as the main instrument in investing in people is key in supporting the development and modernization of social services.
At least 25% of its funds are earmarked for social inclusion. The social fund has been a key instrument to support development, modernization and quality of social services, including setting up integrated services or quality standards.
The 2022 study provides an overview of recent developments in the field of social services, including the mapping of respective national legal and policy frameworks, definitions, categories, work-force, as well as, monitoring and assessment of social impact.