The European Commission is encouraging civil society groups and so-called 'social entrepreneurs' to participate in a new EU-wide initiative to promote new approaches in the provision of public services.
"Social innovation is about meeting the unmet social needs and improving social outcomes," said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, speaking last week (17 March) at the launch event of the 'Social Innovation Europe' initiative.
According to official figures, the so-called 'social economy' in Europe employs 11 million people, while the non-profit sector as a whole provides some 40 million jobs across the EU.
But the Commission president acknowledged that the concept of "social innovation" was not widely understood by the wider public.
According to Barroso, social innovation is about "tapping into the creativity of charities, associations and social entrepreneurs to find new ways of meeting pressing social needs, which are not adequately met by the market or the public sector and are directed towards vulnerable groups in society".
One of the main aims of this new initiative is to develop an interactive online database that will enable all kinds of social actors to learn about different approaches to the delivery of public services that are being tried out in other countries.
It will provide information about funding opportunities and facilitate new relationships between civil society organisations (CSOs), governments, public sector institutions, social service providers and private companies to tackle social issues as Europe strives to lift itself out of the economic downturn.
The initiative is being led by the Social Innovation eXchange (SIX) – part of the Young Foundation, which is based in London. The chief executive of the Young Foundation is Geoff Mulgan, who previously worked in the UK government as a senior advisor to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Mulgan told EURACTIV that across Europe there is increasing recognition among policymakers of the importance of social innovation, and he predicted that areas of social services such as health, education and care would be major sources of job creation in the coming years.
"The social innovation initiative aims to catalyse action across Europe – linking the best innovators in all fields, and helping the EU institutions to modernise policies for investment, regional growth, R&D and social programmes so as to get more innovation impact for every euro spent," said Mulgan.
Civil society groups remain cautious
Civil society organisations afforded a positive albiet cautious welcome to the launch of the new initiative. Speaking off the record, some told EURACTIV that they would have to wait and see how the initiative was being implemented and followed up before they could judge how useful it was.
The European Federation of National Organisations Working with Homeless People (FEANTSA) has been closely following social policy developments at EU level for more than 20 years, and is in favour of comparing different policy approaches based on their results.
FEANTSA policy officer Ruth Owen told EURACTIV that "there is real potential for this new focus on social innovation to help deliver on key priorities in the area of poverty and social exclusion, including homelessness". "This can best be achieved through evidence-based social innovation," she said.
"It is essential that there is an adequate focus on evaluation and evidence, in order to make social innovation credible within the EU framework and ensure maximum impact on key priorities. The European Commission must work together with stakeholders on key thematic areas to establish what are the best opportunities for social innovation," Owen added.
Social innovation 'more needed than ever'
Referring to the ongoing social impacts of the economic downturn, Commission President Barroso said "the crisis has only confirmed the necessity for change in the way we approach our social and economic challenges".
He insisted that the outcomes of the 'Social Innovation Europe' initiative must not be limited to interesting discussions and "nice papers", but should also include "concrete consequences in policymaking and policy outcomes".
The Commission, he said, is actively considering the idea of proposing a European statute for foundations that would contribute to meeting social needs.