The European Union could do more to encourage innovation in the design and delivery of public services, including education, health and social care services, by giving financial support to experimental projects at local level.
This was the main message that came out of a panel discussion on social innovation, hosted by the Committee of the Regions in Brussels this week (10 May).
A majority of panel members endorsed the idea of using money from existing funds and instruments – including the cohesion funds, the European Social Fund and EU research funds – to encourage social innovation at the local and regional level.
"I think we need a community initiative funded by the Cohesion Policy funds for the next period called 'social innovation and local development'," said Jan Olsson, co-president of REVES – a European network that brings together regional and local authorities as well as social economy organisations.
Olsson underlined that social innovation should be about people and partnership, but insisted that it was more important to try out new ideas and avoid getting caught up in long discussions about definitions and terminology.
"Social innovation is about experimentation, and some cases will totally fail, and some will succeed," said Olsson. "You can't define from the beginning whether it will be successful or it will fail," he added.
Olsson argued that the EU should use its resources to foster small projects and support small organisations at local level, without trying to evaluate them in advance.
"We should just give them money and let them test and experiment," he said.
Giving more money to small projects
The idea of giving more money to small projects was backed by Vicki Sellick, an expert in local government innovation who works for the Young Foundation – the organisation in charge of developing the 'Social Innovation Europe' (SEI) initiative, which is being supported by the European Commission.
Sellick called for new ways of funding social innovation, and suggested that 1% of public budgets could be used to support the development of new approaches.
"Most of the leading economies of the world invest 3 to 4% of their GDP in research and development, and nearly all of that goes into science and technology," said Sellick.
"What would happen if we took 1% and put that into social innovation? Where would we be in a few years' time?" she asked.
"Perhaps those structural funds could be restructured to support and incubate new approaches from low-carbon communities to networks that self-manage health care, and maybe we can deliver more investment in assessing what really works," she suggested.
Sellick promised that the SEI initiative would provide a platform for exchanging ideas on how to finance local projects, and how to identify successful approaches and then spread them across Europe.
"Our working assumption is that we have no choice really but to speed-up our search for better solutions to the big challenges that we face as Europe, all together, to finance radical alternatives and to scale-up what works," said Sellick.
The president of the Committee of the Regions, Mercedes Bresso, said that social innovation should be one of the priorities for local, regional and national authorities.
"I am convinced that local and regional authorities are at the forefront in this area, as we are responsible for framing, funding and implementing policies," she said.
Bresso said that regions, cities and municipalities were responsible for more than one third of public spending and some two-thirds of public investment across the whole of the EU.
"Public procurement could be a significant motor for innovation," she said.
The Italian noted that as a result of the economic crisis, the level of demand for many social services was increasing, while their budgets were getting smaller.
She said that local and regional authorities are "proven incubators" of social innovation, and they are experienced at finding ways to do more with less resources.
Bresso promised that the Committee of the Regions would play its part in exchanging examples of best practice in the provision of public services and addressing social needs.
She mentioned in particular the 'Europe 2020 Monitoring Platform' set up by the CoR, and encouraged regions and cities to make full use of this facility for sharing knowledge and ideas with their counterparts across the continent.