Social innovation in social services


In 1997 I returned to Spain after several years living in Ecuador. For our family it was the moment of greatest vulnerability and risk of social exclusion in our history. The welfare state helped us. At the employment office, both my wife and I got job orientation and a monthly salary to support us until we found work. Our two daughters started going to public school totally free and we immediately had access to free health services. However, we had to find housing on our own and we did not have support from social services for the care of our daughters or our community inclusion. Four pillars of the welfare state served us but two did not, one of them social services, because they were very weak. From then until now the situation has not changed much, there has not been a great innovation or a great development (scaling up of innovations) in social services.

Usually, social innovation is distinguished from technological innovation. Take, for example, the fields of health or mobility. We easily distinguish technological innovations (a new technique for surgical operations or a new motor for buses) from social innovations (which have more to do with the inclusion of agents and participatory organization in each of these sectors). Obviously, an innovation can be technological and social simultaneously.

The problem in social services is that there is no clear delimitation of the sector, that it is a very poorly articulated area and that we do not know what its value chain is. I see it as a border area in the welfare state with different configurations in different countries. This is a very problematic context for technological innovation and for distinguishing technological innovation from social innovation and promoting both.

In any case, for me, at this time, the most interesting innovations in social services have to do with preventive, proactive, relational and close care, supports and interventions in diverse communities with the support of digital technology that complement the autonomy and relationships of all the persons. Also with the vertical (multilevel) integration between different responsibilities and horizontal (intersectoral) integration with health, employment, education and other branches of services.

(The drawing is by Robin Murray.)

Responding to COVID-19 in Spain: returning from care homes to live with families as an alternative? (2020/03/26)


The COVID-19 emergency is characterized by its novel and vertiginous nature. It is an unprecedented situation in which everything is changing incredibly fast. By the time we identify solutions it seems to be too late to implement them.

In Spain, for example, the decree approved by the central government on the 14th of March that declared the state of emergency contained a list of services that must remain open. It included hairdressing salons but, surprisingly, there was no reference at all to social services.

However, six days later, the nursing homes were in the front pages of all the newspapers due to the large numbers of people who became infected and died, prompting the Government to declare social services as “essential services”. Residential and nursing homes rapidly became the focus of attention, with a number of intervention strategies. For example, in the press on March 24 it is reported that the army entered more than 300 care homes in order to disinfect them.

Residential and nursing homes are just one of many long-term care options, and they should really be considered together with domiciliary, ambulatory and day care, as well as telecare and other forms of community-based support. There are many reasons why some people move into residential forms of care, while others remain in their own homes. These may be to do with severity and complexity of needs, preferences and the household situation. However, once someone has moved into a residential home, this does not necessarily mean that they can never go back into their own home, at least temporarily, provided that there is adequate care and support available.

The current situation in Spain suggests that it is particularly difficult to manage a health emergency that requires isolation within a communal living setting, specially when high proportion of people in the setting have high care needs.

In this context, one of the measures that could be considered and promoted is that people who are in residential homes and are in a position to do so, move temporarily back to their own homes, the homes of their relatives or of others who may have capacity to host them. Obviously this requires that there is availability of adequate home-based care and support, and a suitable environment, so that the care and support needs are met and unpaid carers are not over-burdened. It also requires trying to ensure that neither the persons leaving the residential setting nor those who host them are infected.

This measure could potentially reduce some of pressure on residential care homes, by making it easier for them to have more space to protect from infection those who remain, and less pressure on staff. Some families in Spain are doing this now, and it is likely that there are many families who wish that they had had the chance to do it too.

Suggested citation: Fantova F (2020) Report: Responding to COVID-19 in Spain: Returning from care homes to live with families as an alternative? Article in, International Long-Term Care Policy Network, CPEC-LSE. Available at

Social services in the European pillar of social rights

Pillar 3

Within the construction of the European pillar of social rights, the most pressing priority is the reinforcement and configuration as a universal sectoral policy of what we call in Spain social services (“social care” or “personal social services” in other countries), understood as professional and social diagnosis based services devoted to provide care and other supports in order to promote and protect the interaction of people (understanding interaction as the autonomous development of people in family and, in general, community relations). The aim is to overcome the outdated vision of social services as residual services with no specific purpose for excluded groups.

Therefore, social services should not be directly concerned with income, housing, employment, health or education outcomes, since each of these areas has its own sectoral policy, which must also be universal and not exclude anyone. The social services that we must construct constitute a fundamental right for the social well-being and the quality of life of any person: the right of all the people to receive the care and other supports (including assistive technology) to conserve and increase their functional autonomy for daily life and their relational integration into diverse and sustainable families and communities.

It is necessary to differentiate, define and develop social services; ensure the universal right to quality, knowledge-based and technology-based social services; with community-based approaches; that provide care and other supports and interventions for personal empowerment and family and community development, for the sustainability of life in sexual, generational, functional and cultural diversity.

It is essential to understand that, before achieving intersectoral integrated care (for example between social services and health care), there is a need to achieve the internal integration within social services (that include early childhood care services, some long-term care programs, family interventions, certain supports for disability, community promotion projects and others). It is important to understand the unity, coherence and universality of social services. While historically seen as segregated services for so called “special groups”, we must conceive them as community interventions and supports for self-care and self-determination and for intergenerational and inclusive relationships of everybody.

In order to strengthen and configure these universal social services, it is fundamental to support knowledge management and good practices; through learning communities and knowledge consensuses; with technological and social innovation; elaborating minimum standards and professional orientations.

Social services must support all people to live with maximum autonomy and empowerment in community relations with diversity in every way.

(Input elaborated with contributions to the “Public consultation on the European pillar of social rights”.)

Ten theses for the future of social services

Social services 3

1. The political commitment with social services (as a universal branch of social policy, different from health, education, employment, housing or income guarantee) can be a winning bet in the context of the currents crisis of care, crisis of subjects and crisis of social contract.

2. The political commitment with social services only can be successful if it is truly strategic, i.e, if it is understood that it cannot be seen as a tactic movement connected with mature social demands of organized agents or structured subjects, because these mature demands and subjects don’t exist at the moment. It will take some time to build the frame in which those great groups of people who can benefit from more extended, professional, universal and diverse social services would understand and support the new narrative.

3. Social services need to overcome, as soon as possible, their condition of residual and non specific services for vulnerable minority groups and must concentrate on its own object (interaction, understood as functional autonomy and relational integration of all people).

4. The technical activities, professional services and care model that can protect and promote human interaction exist in the social services sector but they need an investment commitment in order to accelerate their methodological and technological development and to improve their ability to personalize intervention and to manage diversity.

5. Social services policy should build both public system and economic sector. Only one sector of economic activity –qualified, professionalized, recognizable and attractive for the whole population- can contain a public system that guarantees individual rights.

6. We must build a highly decisive social services primary care level that becomes the key to the quality of life of people in their desired environments, strengthening their autonomy and meaningful relationships.

7. Building a knowledge ecosystem for social services goes through proactive strategies of hybridization between disciplines, between professions, between agents and between types of knowledge.

8. Building social services economic sector and public system is also a process of rearranging the designs, arrangements, coordination and integration between different sectors and welfare systems (with, at least, health, education, employment, housing and income security).

9. Public social services system building process should open up opportunities for organizational, social and political innovation so that new forms of synergy between the strategic governance of public sector guaranteeing rights, on the one hand, and on the other, self-management and individual, family and community empowerment powered by social initiative and solidarity economy could emerge.

10. We are talking about a social services public policy that can bring them to the heart of what can be a credible offer of a renewed, fair and efficient social contract for the sustainability of life.

Social services: the way ahead


In this moment of crisis our social services are faced with specific and hazardous threats. The threat of being expected to return to their more paternalistic and palliative versions as increasing strain is placed on society. The threat of their being affected to a greater degree by tight budgets, as they are less structured and consolidated than other systems. And, in short, the threat of the promise of subjective rights remaining unfulfilled, the launch of the social services as the fourth pillar of welfare system being aborted…

We could talk for hours about these threats, which are quite often a reality in the here and now. However, we can turn this situation around, and we can find a window of opportunity, precisely in this crisis, to improve the leverage given to the social services, with coherence and determination. And precisely because our social services systems are less structured and less consolidated than other key pillars, and so there is a greater margin for manoeuvre when it comes to building them.

Within this context, the structuring and strengthening of the social services and, particularly, of the public social services systems, can be one of the strategic keys to configuring a welfare system that is able to respond to the new challenges and social risks. Firstly, of course, because the social services provide support that is particularly necessary, and developing and strengthening them is therefore a way of extending or completing the welfare system. But also, secondly, because when the social services (and the public social services system) are developed and built using innovative keys, as well as extending or completing the welfare system, they may also contribute to the welfare system as a whole becoming more relational, participative, friendly and synergic.

We still have time to build a social services sphere pervaded with a relational, participative, community-orientated and activating approach. Social services that are not geared to replacing family and community care or providing financial compensation to offset their limitations, but instead dedicated to complementing and reinforcing this family and community support. A system governed by the synergy between public responsibility, on the one hand, and individual, family and social responsibility, on the other. Social services that are innovative and able to invent new ways to respond to people’s needs. A flexible, efficient network, where the users’ financial and non-financial involvement in maintaining the services can be modulated, combining the perspectives of rights and obligations. An environment with a strong third sector, a solidarity economy, able to provide added value that is of special interest providing it is loyal to its identity. This is the way ahead.

More about social services in

Political universalization and conceptual universalization of social services

Social services

The movement for the declaration and guarantee of subjective rights or universal entitlement to social services is a movement which, by definition, must be parallel to that of delimitation, precise definition of the object, content of the social services, identification of the assets they protect and promote and the technical and organisational means that will allow these rights to be guaranteed.

I consider that what we must leave behind the perception of the social services as a general broom wagon, with no content of its own, able to attend to any needs at all (personal aid, housing, money, health, education…) for people who, for whatever reason, had not obtained a response to these requirements via the same resources or in the same environment as the majority of the population.

That was a horizontal concept of the social services (transversally covering people’s different needs) and we are beginning to erect the fourth pillar, i.e. place the social services in a vertical position. And at this time, the social services are indeed in a position of having to identify the assets they protect or promote. They can not talk about people in their totality, as none of the pillars (health, education, income security, etc.) take people in their totality into account.

I consider that the asset protected and promoted by the social services, the specific need they cater to, the object that provides their specific added value, is the dynamic bonding of functional autonomy and relational integration. If we study the situation, we can see that this dynamic bonding of functional autonomy and relational integration is lacking in the problematic cases which, we believe, require a response from the social services. Because this balance is a valuable asset. This balance can be very positive in the case of a baby, for example, or an eighty-year-old in a situation of functional dependency, when they have a powerful, close-knit family and community network to support them. It is very positive in the case of a celibate hermit, or an executive single woman, constantly travelling, with few informal ties but with a huge capacity for autonomous development.

We could thus say that a series of social changes make a particular type of social need more intense and more visible, and this nurtures the development of the social services. New techncical and political developments mean exciting times are ahead, and they are set to be a launchpad for the social services as the fourth pillar, with the concept of subjective rights to catalyse this launch.

More information: documents/Intervention and social services.