How can the EU support meaningful and sustainable social innovations?

On February 13, 2014 we held a lunch debate on social innovation at the European Parliament. It was hosted by Heinz Becker MEP, rapporteur on the Social Business Initiative.

Our President Heather Roy introduced Social Platform's 9 principles for meaningful social innovations: novelty; focus on unmet/ inadequately met/ new social needs by reinforcing the implementation of human rights; assessment sharing; informing policy development; potential for up-scaling; participation and involvement of users; participation and involvement of all relevant stakeholders; goes beyond technological innovation for the benefit of users; has a bottom-up approach. You can read our position paper to learn more.

Two examples of meaningful social innovations were presented by our members. Ruth Owen from FEANTSA presented the approach of Housing First projects that place homeless people directly into long-term, self-contained housing with no requirement that they progress through transitional programmes (you can read her presentation). Housing First is a radical break with conventional services for homeless people (novelty) and promotes the right to housing and dignity. It is currently being scaled up or adapted to a wide variety of national, regional and local contexts and it is increasingly influential at all levels of policy making on homelessness. It has been highlighted in the Social Investment Package.

Alice Sinigaglia (AGE Platform Europe) presented one of the innovations developed by the INNOVAGE project whose aim is to to support active and healthy ageing. The innovation wants to raise the awareness for appropriate housing in old age, and empower senior citizens to become more actively involved in decision-making in the context of housing provision. It involves a partnership of public authorities, civil society organisations, as well as public stakeholders involved in housing construction and housing provision. A computer-based tool helps older people to express their needs and make independent choices with regard to housing. Research circles are organized at local level to involve users and other relevant stakeholder in the development of the innovation. It is tested in 4 different countries (Italy, Sweden, Latvia and Germany) and it is backed up by an analysis of the University of Lund (you can read the presentation).

Florian Pomper from Caritas Austria highlighted how important it is to have funding available to support the early stage of social innovation, namely the process of identifying new needs and the development of innovative solutions. Most of the Civil Society Organizations cannot afford to build up additional human resources for the development of innovative solutions. As a result, the job of developing new concepts has to be done by the existing employees as an additional task on top of their operative day to day work. Just imagine for example that a big company like Apple would announce that they close down their product development unit and that the job of developing the future products would from now on be done by the shop assistants in their apple stores… unthinkable in the business world, but much too often reality in the social sector…

Representatives from the Commission, the European Economic and Social Committee, and MEPs were asked to comment Social Platform's policy recommendations.

Jutta Steinruck MEP, rapporteur on the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation, commented that the adopted EASI programme is accessible for civil society organisations in all its axes: especially with regard to the Progress axis, every project, irrespective of its size, should be eligible. It is very important that failure is not a reason to withdraw finance, as the risk of failure is the essence of social policy experimentation. Financial support should be granted not only granted to experimentations and projects, but also to evaluation and transferability, otherwise the small projects would not have any added value. The evaluations should not be solely based on quantitative criteria, but also on qualitative. For instance in the employment field, it is not only important to evaluate the quantity of persons that got an employment contract, but also the sustainability and quality of this job. To learn more, you can watch the video.

Raymond Maes, Member of Commissioner Andor's Cabinet, highlighted that social innovation is not a goal in itself, but it is a mean to feed innovative processes in the employment and social inclusion agenda. For instance, the Youth Guarantee is an example to try to innovate the existing structures in member states to  tackle youth unemployment. For the Commission, there is a tension between keeping the bottom up approach in social innovation and ensuring its transferability at EU level.

Amaryllis Verhoeven from DG Markt stressed the links between the social innovation agenda and the Social Business Initiative (SBI). Facilitating access for social enterprises to private money is one of the main headlines of the SBI: if you want to be innovative, you need to take the risk, because you don't know where you are going. This is why social enterprises need private finance. In the frame of the Group of Experts on social entrepreneurship a report has been drafted on measuring the social impact of social enterprises. The report looks quite vast, it has to be flexible regarding the methods and tools, it is not about being prescriptive

Ariane Rodert, Vice-President of Group III of the EESC, stressed the need to link more closely social innovation with the social business agenda. We need to look at new ways of co-production and co-creation of policies. There is not always a market logic to capture social innovation from civil society. You do not always have indicators to measure. We have to be sensitive on what and how we measure. The problem arises when this logic goes at member state level. The "payment by results" logic (according to which public authorities pay for services only when they are successful) brings the risk of deleting the rights based approach which is core principle for civil society.

Heinz Becker MEP (EPP, Austria) stated that it is important to make clear that the increasing emphasis on social innovation and social business should not represent an alibi for governments to reverse their duties and responsibilities. At the same time he invited traditional social welfare organisations to be more corageous because thanks to their pluri-annual expertise, they are best placed to face the changes our welfare systems are facing, including by promoting social innovations.

Heather Roy concluded that instead of talking about social innovation, we should talk about innovative approaches in social policies. Innovation is done not only with private money, you can also spend public money in an innovative way.