Key messages from our city dialogue on social services in the time of coronavirus

30 April 2020

Eurocities brought together 50 city experts from social services in 35 European cities in direct dialogue with OECD to discuss common challenges related to COVID-19 crisis, exchange on social measures to respond to this crisis and share know-how, good practices and lessons learned so far.

This was one in a series of online city dialogues organised by Eurocities to inform, connect cities and facilitate city-to-city dialogue on responses to fight COVID-19 crisis and its impact.

Key findings from OECD analysis

Dorothee Allain-Dupre and Varinia Michalun from the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities of the OECD, presented the key findings from the OECD analysis on the territorial impact of COVID-19 and implications for managing the crisis across levels of government:

  • The impact of COVID-19 pandemic has been strongly asymmetric within countries, regions and cities. Some regions (e.g. Lombardy in Italy, Ile-de-France in France), and particularly metropolitan cities within these regions, are more affected than others, but also within the same city some neighbourhoods are more affected than others due to the population density.
  • Cities and regions are at the frontline of managing the crisis as they are in charge of critical aspects of health care, social services, utility services, local economic development and public investment.
  • Coordination between local and national authorities is more important than ever to deliver effective measures to respond to COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 has a high impact on cities both economic and fiscal impact as well as social impact in terms of rising inequalities to access healthcare, social services, digital divide, which will strongly affect vulnerable groups
  • The COVID-19 crisis may be a tipping point for public investment in social services and social infrastructure. Learning from the past financial crisis of 2008-2009, cuts in social services should be avoided and investment in more affordable and accessible services should be ensured as part of the recovery plans. For this to happen, national governments need to ensure financial support to local authorities to help the local finances and secure continuity of investment in social services, of which 60% is provided by cities.

OECD analysts said: “It is impressive to see how fast, innovative and pro-active cities have been in managing the COVID-19 crisis on the frontline, especially in healthcare and social services. Cities have been leaders in an unchartered territory, showing they are able to work and act in a rapidly changing, highly uncertain and unstable environment. Cities are working in an unprecedented fashion and writing the playbooks for the future.”

You can read the full OECD paper through this link.

Key lessons from cities

  • Cities are acting in a fast, pro-active and innovative way to respond to COVID-19 health crisis:
    • putting in place emergency social measures and targeted support to the most vulnerable groups (support to elderly, homeless, migrants, victims of domestic violence, families in need etc.)
    • ensuring continuity and adapting social services (e.g. food aid, basic material assistance)
    • innovating with e-inclusion by digitalising social services
    • mobilising civil society and volunteers on the ground
  • To ensure an effective response to COVID-19 emergency, cities:
    1. Respond quickly and pro-actively to limit virus spread
    2. Coordinate with national authorities. Combining local with national measures in an integrated way is the best way to address the COVID-19 crisis. No one can respond alone to this unprecedented crisis.
    3. Communicate regularly to citizens by using all available channels (this builds trust in measures)
    4. Cooperate, consult and coordinate with the network of local organisations (NGOs, social economy organisations etc.) -> this generates social capital that is key also for recovery
    5. Use all resources, including capacities that had not been used before, such as reallocating available staff to serve as volunteers for targeted measures (e.g. phoning elderly people)
  • Cities are seeing new groups of people in vulnerable conditions due to the impact of the crisis: workers who lost their jobs, people who cannot afford paying rent, elderly, students, young people, children in low-income families, besides the already known vulnerable groups that risk becoming even more vulnerable – the homeless, undocumented migrants, victims of domestic violence and workers in the informal sector. This is rising poverty and inequalities in cities.
  • Some cities are seeing a dramatic increase in demand for social services and social assistance, especially from the new groups people in vulnerable conditions – e.g. high demand for food aid and basic material assistance in the absence of other social assistance support (for those not registered or not qualifying for social welfare due to resident status or other reasons). To meet the increase in demand, cities have extended the capacity of their social services. For example, Athens has opened new homeless shelters, Barcelona has extended with 800 more places in temporary shelters, and other cities are doing the same.
  • The key challenge for many cities is how to cope with the increasing demand in social services, which generates new costs in local public spending, while facing un certain future for their municipal budgets (due to reduced revenue, loss in tourism etc.). Support from national level is much needed as well as better access for cities to the available EU funds.
  • On the positive side, the COVID-19 crisis can be an opportunity to recognise social services as essential and can accelerate decision-making on public investment in social services:
    • in Madrid, social services will get additional budget and human resources from the city council
    • in Spain, the discussion on guaranteed minimum income is now high on national agenda after years of dialogue between cities and national government on this topic
    • in the Netherlands, the national government announced 200 million EUR investment to reduce homelessness, after years of cities highlighting this need to national authorities

Recording and further information

You can access the recording of this city dialogue here:

You can find below the presentation by OECD, the Eurocities overview of social measures in cities to respond to COVID-19 crisis and the Milan note on adapting social services. A report with highlights from the city dialogue will be available soon.

Territorial impact of COVID-19 – OECD Presentation

Eurocities – Online city dialogue on social services in times of coronavirus

Policy note – Overview of social measures in cities to respond to COVID-19 crisis

Milano Aiuta (‘Milan does help’) – keeping up with social services at the time of coronavirus