Europe’s social services face a challenging time. Angela Merkel is fond of saying that Europe has 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its wealth and 50% of its welfare spending. If the continent is to avoid a continued period of stagnation and austerity, it will need to explore more radical options.
The first challenge is to tap our collective intelligence. There are
many tools available to involve more people in the design and
implementation of social care policies, through platforms such as
challenges.org. At their best, these draw on the experiences and
expertise of service users and frontline workers to help solve problems.
They put people at the centre of designing social services.
The second challenge is to commit to experimentation. No one knows what social care models will work best in 10 or 20 years’ time – the only way to find out is by experimenting. Some governments, with Finland and Canada at the vanguard, are exploring alternatives to top-down national policies. They – along with Scotland and the Netherlands – are trialling innovative schemes such as universal basic income, in the hope that they will find a simpler, fairer way of supporting citizens without discouraging them from paid employment or voluntary work. There are many questions to be answered about these experiments – from scalability to behavioural impact – but experimentation is the best test.
Third, governments need to make the most of digital technology. We’re used to the integration of technology with everyday activities such as shopping, travel and transport, but similar platforms can also be used for public services.
Nesta’s ShareLab Fund, for example, has backed a range of promising ideas, like TrustonTap, a platform connecting self-employed care workers with older people in Oxfordshire who want to stay at home independently, enabling them and their family to make decisions about their own care. The GoodSam app is another good example, which uses smartphones to alert volunteer off-duty doctors and nurses to nearby medical incidents at the same time as an ambulance is called. Delivering CPR in the seconds after a cardiac arrest can greatly increase survival rates.
The Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, meanwhile, has successfully backed dozens of organisations that mobilise local people to complement the work of professionals in schools, criminal justice and the health service, pointing to a future where public services are much more closely interwoven with the public themselves.
Fourth, governments need to be smarter about data. Data is at the heart of private sector business models, but governments and NGOs have been much slower to realise how data can help them. Some local authorities are showing what can be done. Hackney council, for example, is working with Xanthura to develop an artificial intelligence model that can identify children at increased risk of ending up in statutory children’s social care, so they can get better support – improving lives and saving money.
Each of these points is connected to a single, vital idea – finding more creative ways of spending and saving money. There are many tools now available – like social impact bonds – that shift spending more to prioritise results. In Wales, the Innovate to Save programme supports new ideas put forward by public servants that have the potential to generate savings – mainly by preventing unnecessary interventions and helping government to act swiftly and sooner.
Around the world there are many examples of even more radical change that prove the public sector can innovate where there’s the will. India’s biometric identity card Aadhaar has transformed access to financial services for poorer communities, but it has also made it possible for the government to offer loans direct to citizens that can be repaid through the tax system. Denmark provides a version of this, but European nations, on the whole, have been remarkably slow to develop the radical payment infrastructures which are now feasible thanks to technology.
These innovations all have a shared ethos: a spirit of learning by doing, testing ideas out on a small scale and then improving them. Each idea brings its own challenges, but at the very least these are more ambitious, constructive and creative responses to difficult times.
By Geoff Mulgan
14 June 2017
Geoff Mulgan will be a keynote speaker at the 25th annual European Social Services Conference this month.