Regions want EU funds to back social innovation


Representatives of regions and cities are calling on the European Commission to focus EU funds on supporting new approaches to meeting social needs.

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.

Public procurement

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.

Mercedes Bresso, president of the Committee of the Regions, believes that social innovation is about finding new ways to deliver social services, including education and health services, and that developing these services could also be a way of boosting economic growth across the EU.

"Europe is considered throughout the world as the model of social welfare, but now we're trying to imitate other countries by dismantling our welfare systems," warned Bresso.

"Instead we have to demonstrate that a good welfare system can be an instrument for growth and for the creation of new ideas in products and services," she insisted.

"So we should be relaunching this image of Europe, instead of running after the Chinese in reducing what we offer to our citizens," she concluded.

Martin Hirsch, president of France's Agence du Service Civique (Civic Service Agency) believes the EU should play a coordinating role in evaluating different approaches and bringing together various actors including public authorities, civil society organisations and businesses, together with researchers and academics.

"Europe could launch experimental programmes linked to the targets of the Europe 2020 strategy – for example on preventing school drop-outs – supporting different approaches in different countries, identifying the most successful approaches and supporting their transfer to other countries," said Hirsch.

The Frenchman said that having some support from the European level would make it easier for many local projects to raise more money from other sources.

"It's very important for convincing people in your own country to say that your project has been labelled and is being funded by the European Commission, because it gives legitimacy to convince other partners to be part of the process," he explained.

Leila Kurki, representing the European Economic and Social Committee, said that before more money could be invested in social innovation, it would first be necessary to reach agreement on a clear definition of 'social innovation'.

"I am sure that the lack of a commonly recognised definition is one of the reasons why social innovation has had a limited place in most EU policy documents in the past," said Kurki.

"I think that CSOs, member-state governments, social partners, they are not really aware of what social innovation really is," she added.

According to Kurki, social innovation should include not just new ways of organising services, but also the re-shaping of social interactions between different actors.

She insisted that the public authorities would always have an important role to play in making rules and ensuring that minimum standards are being respected – for example in the fields of services for children or elderly people.

John Halloran, chief executive of the European Social Network (ESN), said that the challenges facing social service providers had been accelerated by the financial crisis and cuts in public spending.

"Across Europe over the past 15 years, most of our our managers across the public sector and across social service sector have been managing growth," said Halloran.

"That may well not be the future, certainly in the immediate future. So how do people who are used to managing growth manage another scenario?" he asked.

Halloran said that public authorities should look for ways to use their existing resources more efficiently, and agreed that the EU could add value by helping to evaluate different approaches and facilitate the sharing of knowledge.

In June 2010, EU leaders adopted the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which has the overall aim of creating jobs and promoting "smart, sustainable and inclusive growth".

In the framework of the strategy, the European Commission will implement seven flagship initiatives including the 'Innovation Union', presented in October 2010.

The main aims of the EU's 'Innovation Union' are:

  • To make Europe into a world-class science performer;
  • to remove obstacles to innovation (market fragmentation, etc.); and;
  • to encourage public bodies and private companies to work together, notably through Innovation Partnerships between the European institutions, national and regional authorities and business.

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