In the past months, SIC has led an on- and offline campaign to understand some of the biggest policy barriers preventing Europe’s social innovation community from achieving an even bigger impact. To connect with the many diverse actors who make up Europe's social innovation community, we designed and delivered various activities - an interactive policy workshop, social media campaigns, online consultations and a series of online policy roundtables. The goal was simple: we wanted to understand the community's views about what’s needed for social innovation policy in Europe in future.
The timing of this matters. Planning and negotiations are already underway for Europe’s post-2020 strategy and the Multiannual Financial Framework (Europe’s long-term budget). A general climate of political uncertainty and fear has seen many of Europe’s political leaders call for strengthened border security and defences, all of which are likely to appear high on the list of post-2020 political priorities.
…But a different vision for where Europe is headed also needs to be heard.
Of the challenges we faced in the past years - from social exclusion, migrant integration and others - some of the most creative and resourceful solutions were not initiated by powerful, well-resourced institutions or public authorities - but by compassionate and committed citizens, communities and civil society organisations working on the ground. If our goal is to effectively tackle the challenges that lie ahead together, then the important contribution of these actors needs to be recognised and vital support to build their capacity to act increased.
At the EC-hosted New Era for Social Innovation conference, we asked representatives of the community to share their future vision for Europe with us.
The vision they shared is one built on principles and values such as openness, inclusion, participation and democratization: a vision where European citizens and communities are empowered and supported to create meaningful societal impact. This vision is one that should be incorporated into Europe’s wider agenda.
Making a vision for a more social, impactful Europe a reality
We asked social innovators from all over Europe how policymakers could help make this a future vision a reality. Almost 350 social innovation actors - each representing a diversity of sectoral, organisational and regional perspectives from over 15 EU member countries got involved in our on- and offline engagement activities. Of this number, 200 plus respondents (representing umbrella organisations, social innovation networks and projects, community activists, social entrepreneurs, innovators, civil servants and others) responded to our consultation to share their stories and views of how EU policy could better support them to achieve greater social impact.
Based on our analysis of their feedback, we have identified six key needs shared by the community:
1. Improving funding for innovation.
“There’s a lack of sustainable and longer-term funding streams so that groups, communities and smaller organisations can experiment with various social innovation tools and approaches that have a wide impact and scalability.” (#SIDeclaration consultation respondent, 2018)
Funding is one of the top barriers holding social innovators back. Enabling social innovation to seriously scale will require EU funding instruments and regulations be simplified and adapted for social innovation actors (in particular, for smaller social organisations). Issues around risk-aversion, gold-plating and an intolerance of failure amongst managing authorities and others are preventing funding from being used to pursue socially innovative initiatives. Equally, there’s a need for EU funding instruments to be made more purposeful, pursuing desired social outcomes or tackling ambitious ‘grand societal challenges’ over longer time periods. Many called for greater investment support to be made available at all key stages of the social innovation lifecycle. For example, by developing specialised funds and programmes that support prototyping, experimentation, or which address the post-pilot support gap - by specifically aiming at institutionalising, scaling or replicating proven innovations in or between regions.
2. Citizens, communities and civil society need to be supported and empowered to play a greater role in contributing to policy and political processes
“We need investment: in skills, infrastructure and evidence, including investing into SI activists' livelihood...” (#SIDeclaration consultation respondent, 2018)
Our consultation highlighted the need to make the benefits of European policies and funding more visible to local communities, by funding neighbourhood civic innovation spaces, hubs and initiatives. Volunteer burnout and financial insecurity also ranked high as amongst issues encountered by community and local actors. Another challenge facing this group is the lack of investment for skills development and capacity building (e.g. digital, networking and influencing, and impact measurement). This pointed to a need to look at how -rather than investing in one-off projects - EU funding could be directed towards support intermediaries capable of building up the skills and capacities of citizens, communities and civil society to participate in local and community-led innovation.
3. Strengthen the capacity, skills and incentives for public officials and policymakers to support and draw on (citizen-led) social innovation
“There are too many challenges: cultural, skills, technological, legal, policy and, above all, lack of trust in ordinary people.” (#SIDeclaration consultation respondent, 2018)
Respondents voiced their sense of frustration at “non-existent support from authorities” in their context. One public official from Sweden, noted that the lack of political will and support for social innovation and the general absence of social innovation mindset and skills were major barriers to changing government from the inside. Some suggested that EU investment should be used to support ‘retraining and re-envisioning’ for public servants and politicians, to introduce concepts such systems thinking, policy innovation and stakeholder engagement processes. Others proposed learning-by-doing strategies to get social innovation approaches - like human-centred design - into the day-to-day toolkit of public agencies.
4. Fix social procurement
“Public procurement procedures are often more risky than beneficial to us.” (#SIDeclaration consultation respondent, 2018)
A high proportion of respondents reported that public procurement is a major barrier for them or their organisation. €1.9 trillion is paid for public procurement every year in Europe. Yet, for countless social innovation organisations, many of whom have the potential to help governments tackle priority social challenges more effectively, the public market remains inaccessible due to regulatory difficulties or a lack of demand from governments. Accessibility issues aside, many reported that public procurement processes are not well suited to fund social experimentation, which prevent the flexibility and iterative development social innovation initiatives need. Others suggested looking for more upstream ways to involve public procurement and commissioning officers in social innovation processes so they can see themselves playing a bigger role in driving social change.
5. Spread social innovation to where it’s needed most
“Support to intermediary bodies in our region and transfer of knowledge should be priority for financial support.” (#SIDeclaration consultation respondent, 2018)
Many respondents pointed to the challenges of living in regions where the need for social innovation was high, but support and awareness was low - particularly amongst national and regional authorities. Some social innovators spoke of a need for EU regional programmes and funds to be less restrictive to those operating in Central and Eastern Europe. A strong message overall is that there needs to be greater investment in awareness raising and capacity and network-building for regional intermediaries and stakeholders, and in funding demonstration projects aimed at establishing stronger support systems at the local, regional and transregional levels.
6. Social innovation: take a longer view
“Decision makers are only taking responsibility for one part of a larger issue. Middle and long-term change has little priority.” (#SIDeclaration consultation respondent, 2018)
Finally, the community noted that there is scattered and inconsistent engagement with social innovation across key policy areas: which can result in social innovation activity being “fragmented” and “siloed”, while failing to grapple with the true complexity of certain issues. They called for decision-makers at all levels to re-think how they can engage with and support social innovation in a way that is more systemic, strategic and joined up. Here, respondents called for executive leaders and decision-makers to take co-creation methods as their start point for policymaking and service design processes - taking the needs and realities of end beneficiaries, communities, and a broad section of the social innovation community into account when setting up and developing programmes and funds.
We’ve been working on a package of 12 policy ideas we think could help make a difference for Europe’s social innovation community, which you can read about in our blog here. Want to stay up to date on the #SIDeclaration? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Sophie on Twitter @SophsASophist