Executive summary

Social service provision in Spain is highly decentralised as the Constitution grants the regions (the Autonomous Communities) competencies in this area. The 17 Autonomous Communities all have their respective laws on social services; and while these laws all share some common features, the legal diversity has resulted in wide differences in the organisation of social services. For example, in certain regions the functional structure of social services is divided in two levels (basic and specialised). In other regions, however, it ranges between three to five levels and services provided across the different levels vary across regions. The territorial units for the provision of services vary and social service centres cover 20 times more inhabitants in regions with more demand or population density than in less populated ones. In many cases, the high demand for social services is often met by inadequate human resources in terms of staff ratios and type of professionals. Statutory ratios of staff to inhabitants range between 1 500 to 3 000 or even 4 000 inhabitants, and eight regions do not set minimum ratios at all. The most common professional category in social services are social workers, who tend to constitute 40-50% of staff, but can represent fewer than 30% in some regions. Similarly, the percentage of psychologists and educational experts can be twice as high in some regions compared to others.

The regional social services catalogues are very diverse in terms of which services they include and which are guaranteed to users who need them. For instance, while residential services for people with long-term care needs are generally available across all regions, the same is not true for victims of gender-based violence and individuals with disabilities. Similarly, legal protection for minors and prevention programmes against intra-family violence are only mentioned in the social services catalogues of five regions. Service eligibility and co-payments also vary greatly across the country, generating very different levels of access across regions.

Local authorities have an important responsibility for social services, but there is great variation in the level of financing by regional and local governments. Social services represent 10% of regional budgets in two regions but are 6% or lower in three regions. Similarly, the contribution of local governments to financing can vary from around 10% to more than 60% of the overall social services budget. The contribution from the central government is small at around 5% or less of the overall budget. Local governments have the responsibility to finance basic social services, but the variable contribution from autonomous governments, ranging from 10% to over 80% of total expenditures across regions, can generate financing challenges, especially because funds do not always sufficiently reflect the local economic capacity and needs.

Information on social services tends to be fragmented. This is in part because of the separation between primary and specialised social services and because of the separate reporting from third party providers, which makes it difficult to create integrated pathways as well as use information for decision-making. There is also a lack of real-time data as many local entities and third sector providers transmit the information only annually. Better information technology encompassing all actors is needed. Finally, the sector suffers from the lack of impact evaluations.

Vertical and horizontal co-ordination mechanisms remain limited in Spain. While sectoral conferences exist for co-ordination between the central and regional governments, most exchanges on best practices across regions and local entities appear to happen on an informal basis. There is also no provision for transferability of benefits and services across the regions. Improvement in horizontal and vertical co-ordination would be desirable for users.

Such stark geographical differences call for consolidation of the access to rights. In this sense, a new national law to regulate minimum standards and guarantee equal access is paramount. The new law could define a basic common catalogue or a list of needs. Such a national law is within the scope of constitutional possibilities, but given the complexity of the issues at stake needs to be developed in consensus with the different stakeholders for effective implementation. This should be coupled with measures to ensure the transferability of rights across regions as well as to improve co-ordination mechanisms. More regular meetings and a stronger role for the Interterritorial Council on Social Services to make binding decisions are possible avenues for the future.

With changing social needs, the current offer of services and its financing should also be reconsidered. Experts have highlighted that the current burden of staff in social services is in part related to the lack of clarity about what should be the focus of social services. The new legal framework mention above would offer the opportunity to improve the definition and focus more on the services, rather than on benefit administration. Certain gaps in the service offer could also be modified by putting a stronger focus on prevention, transforming residential services into more home and community-based ones, reinforcing legal support and addressing gaps in family services. This raises the question of whether there should be a stronger role for the central government to finance such improvements in services.

Beyond the new law, measures to support quality improvements should be considered. Such measures could include ways to enhance human resources by rethinking staff to population ratios, improving training and simplifying administrative procedures. Better integrated services would also be more people-centred and more effective for users. Finally, given the importance of non-public actors, enhancing the requirements of such actors in terms of data transmission and performance would be beneficial.

Finally, the report highlights the need to develop more evidence-based policies in the area of social services. A stronger data infrastructure is needed with selected indicators to be monitored and benchmarked across the country. Strengthening impact evaluations would allow a better knowledge of which interventions are working or which ones are not. Better data can also contribute to the dissemination of best practices and positively influence future policy design.

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