1. Overview and recommendations

Social services are the set of services and actions aimed at responding to basic life needs and creating equal opportunities for all that enable individuals to participate in economic and social life to strengthen social cohesion and inclusion (Council of Europe, 2010[1]). The exact definition of “social services” differs from country to country. In Spain, the purpose of social services is to promote and ensure the full development of all individuals and groups within society in order to achieve greater social welfare and a better quality of life, in an environment of co-existence, and to prevent and eliminate the causes of social exclusion.

Specifically, the public social services system in Spain includes a variety of benefits and services. The 2013 social services reference catalogue approved by the Local Social Services Board (Consejo Territorial de Servicios Sociales) encompasses:

  1. 1. services: understood as the actions carried out by technical teams aimed at meeting the social needs and promoting the social integration of citizens, families and population groups;

  2. 2. benefits: financial contributions made in form of regular or one-off payments to guarantee a minimum income or provide assistance in emergency situations for citizens.

The services provided are focused around seven themes corresponding to different social needs: 1) information, guidance, consultation and diagnosis; 2) personal autonomy, home-based care and family respite; 3) intervention and family support; 4) intervention and protection of minors; 5) residential care; 6) prevention and social inclusion; and 7) legal protection.

The current configuration of the public social services system arose from the 1978 Spanish Constitution and the implementation of the Concerted Plan for Social Services in 1988. The Constitution shows the intention to bring social services closer to the geographical area where the needs are found. Within this competence framework, there is no national overarching law on social services and the autonomous communities1 have passed their own laws (and the cities of Ceuta and Melilla have passed their own regulations) in the field of social services, which define their guiding principles, benefits and services. This power distribution system has led to a very diverse landscape in terms of regulations, benefits and services in the autonomous communities and the cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Regional regulations differ in terms of the access requirements for services and benefits, whether said benefits and services are guaranteed, and their amount, in the case of benefits. The Concerted Plan was an initiative from the Ministry of Social Rights to enhance co-operation across the different levels of government and promote joint funding of the public social services system.

As a result of the different regional regulations, there are important differences in the availability of different social services across and within autonomous communities, because there is no guaranteed floor of services. Moreover, a high proportion of laws contain a form of conditional or non-guaranteed benefits or services. Their effective provision depends not only on the applicant’s fulfilment of the relevant regulatory requirements, but also on the availability of the necessary budget. Even the essential services on information, guidance and assessment are only guaranteed in just 10 of the 14 autonomous communities that have a draft portfolio/catalogue. Many prevention and family support services are guaranteed in just half of the autonomous communities. In addition, because many regions have not defined an official catalogue of services and benefits following the enactment of regional legislation, citizens are limited in their capacity to exercise their rights and claim specific services.

Access to social services differs due to differences in the staffing levels but also the access conditions. Social services staffing is not the same in the different autonomous communities. In approximately half of the regions, regulations define statutory ratios of primary care staff to inhabitants, which in some cases are differentiated according to the size of the local entity. Regulatory ratios vary from around 1 600 to 4 000 inhabitants per professional. Although staffing improved from 2012 to 2018, the actual ratios still sometimes remain below the minimum ratios established by the regional regulations, where these exist. There are still disparities between and within autonomous communities. Differences in needs linked to the age, socio-economic and regional structure of the population partially explain these disparities, but most likely do not explain all of them, since the difference between the autonomous communities with the lowest and the highest ratios can reach a factor of ten. Although the statistics are not complete or fully comparable, other countries in the European Union appear to employ relatively more staff than Spain. Eligibility criteria and co-payments also vary widely across the regions. Regions differ in the residence requirement for access to benefits, between the length of time required and whether it needs to be continuous or not. In terms of co-payments, for instance, only Castile-La Mancha, La Rioja and Valencia guarantee all their citizens free access to family mediation. In the other regions, the service is only free for families that meet the requirements for free legal assistance when the mediation is initiated by a judicial authority.

In terms of expenditures, statistics are plagued by difficulties in reuniting all expenditures within a community and making them comparable across regions. Nevertheless, there do appear to be important differences in how much different communities spend on social services, and these differences do not appear to be attributable to differences in demographic structures and population distributions. In the Balearic Islands (only for basic community services) and in Murcia, local entities contribute 3.0-3.5 times more than the regional government. In the other regions, the regional government finances a larger share than the local entities – from 1.3 times more in Cantabria to 32 times more in Extremadura. Currently, the central administration’s part in funding social services is minimal, funding an average of 3-4% of primary social services. By comparison, in France, 32% of social services expenditures are covered by the national social security and 7% by the central government directly.

The report presents a number of recommendations directed at both the central state as well as autonomous and local entities as well as at social services providers, which are summarised in Box 1.1. While there is no specific order in which these recommendations need to be implemented, a simultaneity of different efforts in particular at the central and autonomous levels would yield the largest improvements and in the ability of different authorities to design, monitor and evaluate policies and programmes and in the quality of service provision. Close communication between and across the autonomous communities and the central state can help align the implementation of complementary efforts.

From the perspective of the central state, the main scope for action within the area of social services lies within the creation of a national law on social services and, ideally, the mobilisation of additional financial resources. Constitutional case law has established that, given the current division of competences, there is limited space for the central government to intervene in social services. It is possible for the central government to address general social issues that require a comprehensive approach going beyond the regional realm in cases of inequality. A proposed national law of basic conditions in the area of social services would be rooted in Article 149.1.1 of the Spanish Constitution.

Such a law will have a number of advantages and is likely to strengthen social services considerably. In particular, social rights should be immediately judicially enforceable by establishing standard basic conditions that ensure a minimum level of equality throughout the country, meaning that citizens throughout the country, without any form of discrimination or limitation, should have the right to receive certain benefits and services. Relatedly, the future law should help the transferability of rights to certain services when a person moves to a different autonomous community, with a necessary agreement between central and autonomous government authorities on the modalities for transferring benefits and services in the event of a change of residence that could draw inspiration from the example of other European OECD countries.

In the drafting of such a law, there should be a process of consultation involving all public administrations to reach a consensus of the shared minimum level of rights throughout the entire country. This consultation could be handled by the Territorial Council on Social Services, which could specify and update the minimum catalogue of services and benefits, as well as through a working group. To increase the ability of the Council to come to decisions, it should have adequate resources and could consider moving from requiring unanimity to qualified majority decisions. Furthermore, there can be further spaces for the exchange of best practices both in and outside Spain and to agree on the classifications to be used in the different information systems; as well as increased co-ordination mechanisms between different local bodies and between the autonomous community, local and national levels.

The new law and the minimum national catalogue should define social services in a way that is flexible and adaptable to new developments and needs, but that should define objectives and functions, and perhaps also beneficiary groups, more concretely, including a clear definition of the boundaries to associated sectors such as health, education and employment services. A possible example can be the proposed new social services law of the Community of Madrid. The minimum benefits could take inspiration on the one hand from those that are already in place in the majority of autonomous communities, but also from the practices of selected communities as well as other OECD countries with more comprehensive services. In particular, Spain could consider offering a broader range of services intended to: enhance prevention services (such as to prevent the loss of autonomy and promote active ageing); strengthen home services and redesign residential offers (especially for people with disability to favour more independent living); enhance legal aid for vulnerable groups (such as survivors of gender-based violence); expand inclusion interventions; and have more comprehensive family and child protective services.

To ensure the success of a national law on social services, it is important to guarantee the sufficiency of the financial contribution for social services, and its sustainability over time. Above all, the autonomous communities required to increase their offer of services might have difficulties without additional central government support. Based on the lessons from the Long-term Care Act, an estimate of additional resources based on social services provision (including, for example, the number of potential users) could be included in the funding legislation. This means committing greater central government expenditure to regional funding for the future. However, this increase is generally subject to annual negotiation between the central government and the regions. A legal modification could allow services to be taken into account when calculating the financial resources required annually by each autonomous community. The law itself may establish different mechanisms for targeted funding, including transitional contributions and central government contributions subject to autonomous communities contributing similar amounts so that certain services can be co-funded.

In addition to the law, the central government can support autonomous and local entities to launch a number of initiatives that could help secure and possibly improve service quality. Chief among possible quality improvement measures are adjustments to staffing levels and administrative and staff training practices. Autonomous regulations can establish adaptable staffing and workload ratios that reflect the demographic structure of each autonomous community as well as users’ needs; and monitor their observance. Mobile work teams could assist in situations of temporarily increased demand or shortfalls in local staff availability. Creating interoperable operational and statistical applications, digitising procedures, consolidating responsibilities, and promoting the use of vouchers could reduce administrative burden and streamline procedures. Options for continuous training for social service staff should likewise be expanded, leveraging European funds when possible. Training priorities and minimum compulsory training standards and modalities should be agreed upon among various stakeholders. For predominantly administrative social services workers, specific training options should be available.

Another important axis is an improved integration of different social services and of social services with services of other sectors, such as health or education. More integrated social services require a mix of technical and non-technical solutions, including strengthening the role of the reference professional, identifying, and approaching people with complex needs through a combination of database integration and strategies to lower access barriers. In order to strengthen the collaboration with other sectors, building a mutual understanding of the responsibilities and competencies of the professionals from other sectors; defining multi-sector care packages adjusted to different complex needs profiles; creating co-operation councils on an equal footing and sharing financial responsibilities can all be helpful.

Finally, national but also autonomous entities can contribute to strengthening evidence-based policy making. On the one hand, this would require bolstering the monitoring and evaluation system through having a working group define relevant and stable indicators, investing in the administrative data infrastructure and survey data collection, and strengthening impact evaluations through expanding relevant budgets and making administrative and other data available to researchers. On the other hand, increasing the supply of evidence without also increasing the demand for it from policy makers and practitioners would be unlikely to lead to improvements in the policy planning process. Steps to increase the use of evidence in policy making could include strengthening the role of a government institution in disseminating the practice and use of evaluations, or equipping all agencies with the required expertise and ensuring that policy makers know where and how to find the information through self-evaluation tools and training programmes. Moreover, institutions should disseminate good practices, and all publicly commissioned evaluations should be available to the public in an easily accessible and understandable way.

This report is the result of a literature review and an intensive information-collection campaign in the field. Box 1.2. briefly explains the methodology used by the OECD to collect and compile this information, before describing the current social services situation in all the autonomous communities. First, in Chapter 2, the report analyses the constitutional framework and the distribution of competences, highlighting the possibilities that a central government framework regulates social services and defines its scope. In Chapter 3, the report examines regional legislation to analyse the different principles, definitions and services to which citizens are entitled. It studies the provision of social services in all the autonomous communities to understand what services are offered, indicate the similarities and differences among them, and identify any gaps. The analysis in Chapter 4 is based on data collected from all of Spain’s autonomous communities on social services access, use, human resources and management, taking into account service portfolios and implementation. In Chapter 5, the report analyses the financing structure and examines spending trends over time across the different levels of government and services. The final sections present suggestions for strengthening the system: Chapter 6 discusses the possibility of a new national law for social services; Chapter 7 sets out options for clarifying and supplementing the scope of the services; Chapter 8 examines ideas for improving service quality; and Chapter 9 makes suggestions for strengthening the monitoring and evaluation system and increasing the use of evidence in policy design.


[1] Council of Europe (2010), Council Conclusions: Social Services of General Interest: at the heart of the European social model, http://expertise.uriopss-pacac.fr/resources/trco/pdfs/2010/L_decembre_2010/58916_CouncilConclusionsSSGIAttheheartoftheEuropeanSocialModel.pdf.


← 1. Or “regions”, Spain is a decentralised country where regions have a large degree of autonomy and, therefore are called “autonomous communities”.

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