Participation and social services local intervention in Spain 

Enrique Pastor Seller, Profesor Titular de Universidad. Departamento de Sociología y Trabajo Social. Universidad de Murcia (España)

1           Presentation

This article presents a systematic analysis of the offer of opportunities for participation to citizens in the design, implementation, follow-up and assessment of the public policies of social welfare services on a local level in Spain. We looked at the possible influence of these on the local public agenda. The results of the research allow us to systematically describe the offer of mechanisms, bodies and process of participation in the design, management and assessment of the municipal Social Services. They also allow determination of the factors that help to increase the efficiency of the social public policies, by means of an increase in citizens’ participation in local governance.

The complexity and the interdependency of the phenomena and social issues described, as well as the difficult situations that people, families, social groups and communities are going through, requires a degree of engagement, competencies and interactions of the different social players – public and civic. Thus, public participation becomes a substantial element in this new pluralist, relational context. In the current context, participation provides essential benefits to organizational and community dynamics as it allows a progressive adaptation of the functioning of institutions, breaking citizens' apathy and mistrust and offering their representatives tools to assess and improve the management of public affairs. It also allows citizens to take and win back public spaces whilst creating social capital, fostering community feelings, allowing politics to socialize” and supporting decisions to be adopted, as has been pointed out by several authors (Cunill, 1991, 1997; Maiz, 2000; Held, 2001; Warren, 2001; Montero, Font & Torcal, 2006; Bloundiaux, 2008; Pares, 2009; Pastor, 2009, Navarro & Font, 2013; Font & Navarro, 2013). Participation is a key element of integration and social cohesion (Machinea & Andras, 2007, Pastor, 2011a), as it is one of the markers of international cohesion (Cepal, 2007, 2008, Taguenca & Lugo, 2011, Millan, 2012, Gurgel, 2013; Pastor, Tamez & Saenz, 2014) and quality of democracy (Barreda, 2011). This is the reason why participation has become a cross-sectional issue of great interest on the governments’ agenda, as well as the agenda of professionals who wish to implement a political management and/or efficient technique aiming to improve social welfare and the life quality of citizens and the users of the centres/services.

As has been pointed out by Sauca and Wences (2009), the consolidation of citizens’ participation in decision-making and control is constantly spreading in Western democracies. The tools seeking to encourage participation are multiplying in terms of practical policies and in plenty of societies they are spreading at every level of the government (Blondiaux, 2008). The importance of citizens’ participation in the uptake and expansion of social rights and the consolidation of representative democracies is clear. The strengthening of this form of government no longer depends just on free execution of the political rights of the citizens, but also on the fact that they actively get involved – participate – in the different fields and stages of public affairs (Vallespin, 2000; Giddnes, 2000; Bobbio, 2003). We are now facing a “deliberative turn”, as some authors believe (Chambers, 2003; Jorba, 2009).

The current model of Public Social Services System in Spain begins to structure from the enactment of the Spanish Constitution (1978) and the democratization of institutions. In the constitutional text is present vagueness of the term social services, as the term is used only to refer to a system that should ensure the public authorities to promote the welfare of the citizens during the "third age"(art.50). Yeah referred to certain sectors being generic as unemployed, physically disabled, sensory and psychological, family and children (arts.39, 41 and 49); collective own Social Services. As for the area of responsibility, the art.148.1.20º contemplates the "welfare" as one of the powers of the Autonomous Communities. Thus, the Constitution gives center stage to the regions for the construction of new social services. These tasks are taken in the Organic Laws of the Statute of the Autonomous Communities

2           Route and methodological processes of the research

The study, the results of which are presented below, was carried out in 2004-2014 (Pastor, 2009, 2011a and Pastor & Navarro, 2014). It allowed us to describe the typology of the mechanism, organisms and processes of citizens’ participation in the system of Social Services of the autonomous states of Spain. The study also performed a comparative analysis of cases, and assessed the impact in terms of contributions as well as possibilities of the Councils for increasing the depth of democratic influence on the local public policies in terms of social welfare and improvement of the efficiency of the management of services and social benefits.

The context of the research was the Social Services System of the Autonomous Regions of Spain, and specifically the offer of opportunities for associative and/or individual participation in the implementation, management and assessment of local social policies. For this purpose, a rigorous and systematic analysis of the 17 most recent Social Services Laws was carried out. The mechanisms and organisms for promotion of participation in the management of public policies established by means of those laws were also analyzed.

Once the typology was analyzed and compared, we studied the participation of the various Councils and Institutes in the social welfare policies – in general and in a specific region of Spain. This analysis aims to assess the participation policies included in the public policies of social welfare at a local level. This assessment allowed us to identify the dimensions and procedures that improved the local public policies of social welfare by encouraging participation in organizations of social economy and by taking into account people as individuals.

For this assessment, every local corporation – local councils and groupings of municipalities – with involvement in Social Welfare Services of the Region, i.e. 45 local councils and 5 groupings of municipalities, was followed up. The monitored outcomes were the implemented mechanisms of participation, and, especially, the Councils[1] and Institutes[2] at a general and regional level. Firstly, the Social Services Centres of the region and their scopes were identified. Afterwards, 50 interviews were carried out with the staff of the city councils and groupings of municipalities of the region. In-depth interviews were then carried out with the participants of the mechanisms of participation with a total of 22 participant entities. The actors were interviewed at several time points. They were selected to represent the composition of the participation mechanisms – politicians, professionals, and social and neighbourhood organizations. In order to achieve a non-biased representation of the opinions in existence, the diversity of the participants of the mechanisms of participation was taken into account, especially when dealing with politicians (the government and the different political parties of the opposition), staff (relevance, heterogeneity, responsibility and direct implication) and associations (qualification and contrast of opinions, diversity, highest representation and permanence as members in the participation mechanism).

The final report resulting from the process of analysis of content was presented to two discussion groups formed by qualified members – politicians, professionals and representatives from social organizations – who were not the interviewed participants. This process of research and analysis provided us with valid, reliable and ethically verifiable information about the factors that would help to improve the public policies of social welfare.

The methodological approach used for the study was essentially – but not exclusively – based on qualitative techniques. These allowed us to collect the opinions, suggestions and interpretations of the main players involved in processes of citizens’ participation on the matter of local social policies. This case study, specifically related to the Municipal Councils of Social Welfare, allowed the approach of the key figures that participate in the construction of every-day life, which enabled us to get over issues with descriptive or accountability intentions and explain the events that lead to certain situations. At the same time, this method allowed us to produce relevant knowledge using a combination of techniques and from a participative context of different players.

Taking into account the complexity of the phenomena we were studying, several techniques were used for data collection in order to increase the efficiency and solve the problems that presented by the complexity of causality. Mainly, the implemented tools were the interviews conducted with the people in charge/staff of all the local corporations of the region, the in-depth interviews with the main actors and the group discussions with strategic participants.

In order to verify and complement the analysis, theoretical, normative and empiric documents were collected, synthesised and analyzed in two senses: internal and external to the study participants. Thus, comparison of the data obtained from the questionnaires, the interviews and the discussion groups with the data from the document and content analysis was done comprehensively and was carried out in a way that considered the influence of citizens’ participation on the management of the local social policies.

3           The participation in social services municipalities.

The local level is an experimental environment to try new procedures of cooperation and innovative forms of combining political leadership and social participation (cooperative intelligence). “The society of knowledge gives a new notion of citizenship that hermeneutically gathers the different horizons of significance; it achieves an emphatic understanding that states the social originality, authenticity and peculiarity whilst preserving the individual identity.” (Aguirre, 2009, p. 235). Local governments do not negotiate with a homogeneous community, but with multiple communities and identities that live together and/or interrelate with each other in the region. At the same time, citizens demand quality and efficiency from their public services as well as participating in the definition and articulation of public policies that lead local development. Thus, the challenge is to create spaces and conditions that encourage participation/involvement by citizens that produce real and favourable opportunities for collective deliberation over and creation of social policies. This should be done to include the solid and well-informed preferences of citizens that can be observed in the complex local relational context.

The local government is a privileged arena for participation, so it is urgent that we create further participative spaces/structures in this field. Therefore, most local governmental bodies in Europe have been facing a process of reforms over the last two decades, as several studies and authors have shown (Loffler, 2004; Hamzaoui, 2006; Alguacil, 2008; Colino & Del Pino, 2008; Ganuza & Frances, 2008; Navarro, Cuesta & Font, 2009; Sintomer & Ganuza, 2011, Putnman, 2011; Amnesty International, 2011; Cameron, Hershberg & Sharpe, 2012, Navarro & Font, 2013; among others). The objectives of these reforms can be summed up in two categories: administrative reforms, aiming to achieve efficiency, efficacy and quality in the local administrative structures and their work in terms of citizens’ wishes; and reforms that enrich the local democratic system with a greater sense of inclusivity and citizens’ access to public decisions that affect them.

The complex, heterogeneous and dynamic variety of mechanisms and participatory practices that are used by the municipalities are usually set up by

·         associative mechanisms (Municipal Councils of Citizens’ Participation; Territorial or Sectional Councils; Committees of Services Users and Local Development Associations, etc.),

·         processes developed by direct or deliberative practices (participative budgets; citizens’ juries and participatory intervention associations; citizens’ assemblies; neighbourhood, community or services meetings; referenda or popular consultations; demonstrations, strikes and boycotts; satisfaction surveys; consultation services; group discussions, etc.) and

·         mixed mechanisms (territorial strategic plans; Agenda 21; councils, forums or sectional, territorial or services assemblies; citizens’ platforms; regional planning committees and services workshops, etc.).

In consideration of research about participation at a local level (Font, 2001; Gutierrez, 2005; Rodriguez, Arriba, Marban & Salido, 2005; Montero, Font & Torcal, 2006;  Harms & Pereyra, 2006;  INAP, 2008; Navarro, 2008; Navarro, 2011; Pastor, 2011b, 2012; Font & Navarro, 2013, Pastor & Navarro, 2014, Sanchez & Martinez, 2014, among others), we observe two different phenomena: the decentralization of the welfare state from the mid '80s, which made the municipal governments look for social representatives – i.e. from the third sector – and even commercial representatives, and the development of adaptive strategies with stable and dynamic features that guide their political structure and trajectory.

Table 1. General aspects of the evolution of increased citizens’ participation in the Spanish municipalities







Municipal agenda:

Democratization and basic urban services

Municipal agenda: Welfare services

Municipal agenda:

New demands

Civic players: ‘political’ (neighbourhood) associations

Civic players: Associations for the provision of services

Civic players:

Citizens and new groups


Department of citizens’ participation



Participation plans



Regulations or Standards for citizens’ participation


Advisory Councils






Individual and deliberative mechanisms




Fostering of associations and agreements to provide services



Source: Pastor and Navarro (2014, p. 42).

These participative mechanisms are nowadays undergoing a process of erosion due to the emergency of situations that cause upheaval among citizens, especially because of the rise in inequalities and the number of attacks on social rights. Currently, we can see collective protests triggered by the increase in people at risk of poverty and social exclusion for economic reasons, social inequality, economic crisis, unemployment, precarious working situations, capitalist accumulation, high household debt, etc.

These protests, by means of dramatization, make the unequal distribution of wealth visible, highlighting the loss of social and labour rights, the reduction of services and public benefits, etc. They make up a complex mosaic, built in a premeditated manner by the political and economic institutions, full of contradictions and antagonising factors that will most probably lead to the disruption of cohesion and social peace. The goal of these protests is to raise public awareness about a reality that affects everybody and definitely influences both the policies and the political class. Civil disobedience, as Marcone (2009) states, is an essential mechanism of the structure of democratic states and it activates two of the legitimating principles of the democratic order: popular sovereignty and mutual recognition of the right to have rights.

In Spain, we went out to protest (political contest) in different ways (strikes, chains, “caceroladas”, citizens’ concentrations, riots, collective hugs and shows of public nudity, demonstrations, occupation of buildings, blockade of evictions, protests, picket lines, silent screams, etc.) all with the aim of raising public awareness and having a political, social and economic impact. We went from silence to the Internet and from the Internet to the street (15M, Democracia real YA, Juventud sin futuro, Anonymus, #no les votes, Democracia, Movimiento, etc.). Tarrow (1997), Tilly & Tarrow (2006) and Tilly (2008) state that demonstrations are a relatively familiar and standardized way to direct collective cries toward a group of political figures. According to Tilly (2008), these events are partly the result of innovation and learning processes. The participants register the efficiency and/or adequacy of the protest actions that they carry out. They then adapt and improve them in terms of resources and initiatives, task division, involvement of others, etc. They learn how to solve the problems of mobilization and coordination of collective actions and develop them until they can have a common name that is recognizable to others.

4           Analysis and assessment of citizens’ participation in local social politics in Spain.

4.1     Competences of public administrations

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 includes a mandate for the public powers to promote the necessary conditions for freedom and individual and group equality to be real and effective, for the removal of obstacles hindering its fulfilment and for the promotion of all citizens’ participation in political, economic, social and cultural life. All these principles aim to develop welfare policies in which the role of citizens goes further than just being the recipients of benefits, but includes their collaboration in the establishment of criteria for this topic as well as its development and assessment.

The fundamental legal references at a State level for the development of these rights are the Law 7/1985, which regulate the Bases of Local Government; the Real Decree 2568/1986, of 28th November, which approves the Regulation of Organization, Functioning and Legal Framework of the Local Authorities as well as the Law 57/2003, of 16th December, which includes measures for the Modernization of Local Government. The latter, in our analysis, is an attempt to formally develop the organisms and mechanisms that encourage citizens’ participation at a local level. With these new regulations, Spain has attempted to integrate into the European trends that promote opportunities for participation and the idea that influence of the citizens on a local government level can help decrease the distance between citizens and their leaders in public life. In particular, it includes three so-called “novelties”: the creation of districts, the creation of a City Social Council and the creation of a Special Committee for Suggestions and Complaints.

4.2     Map of associative participation in Spain

Due to the structure of the system of autonomous regions, the Social Services are an exclusive competence of each individual autonomous government, as defined by article 148.1.20 of the Spanish Constitution. These services come under the heading of “social assistance” and it is necessary to focus on them if we want to properly anlayze citizens’ participation from the point of view of the autonomous regions. The group of autonomous laws of that map out Social Services include, to various extents, the principle of citizens’ or civic participation, through the creation of mechanisms and paths that foster participation in the management of the Public System of Social Services, as well as in planning, follow-up, control and assessment of the centres, plans and social programs.

The following table shows a summary of the analysis of citizens participation in the 11 autonomous communities that published his laws of social services in Spain since 2003

Table 2: Comparative analysis of participation in the Spanish autonomous regions

Principality of Asturias

Law of Social Services of the Principality of Asturias 1/2003 of 24th February



Function:  “Fostering participation and full and free development of the people and groups of society, as well as promoting community development” (art. 3.e).


Principles: “Creating means and conditions to foster participation of citizens in management of the public system of Social Services as well as in the planning, follow-up and assessment of plans and programs” (art.5.i).

·         The Advisory Council of Social Welfare for the Principality of Asturias (art. 35).

·         Local Councils for social welfare at a local level with advisory sections for planning, organization and functioning of the public system of Social Services (art. 37).

·         Sectional advisory councils (art. 38).

·         Rights and duties of users of Social Services (art. 38 and 39).

·         Volunteering (art.41).




Law of Social Services 15/2006 of 14th December



Goals: “Promotion of the participation of the community in the fulfilment of social needs and, especially, of the representative entities of underprivileged groups” (art.2.g).


Principles: “The public powers will promote and ensure the participation of people, groups and entities in the system” (art.5.f.).


Rights: Right to participation of the recipients of Social Services (art. 6 and 7).


·         The Council for Social Welfare of Navarre (art.56.a).

·         Sectional Councils for Social Services (art.56.b).

·         The Council of Social Welfare for Navarre (art.57).

·         Users and/or families participation and their rights to it (art. 60).



Law of Cantabria for Rights and Social Services 2/2007 of 27th March



Principles: “The participation of people as actors of their own change and of the groups and entities of civil society in the functioning of the Public System of Social Services” (art.10.2.f.).


Function: “Promotion of resources and means to facilitate social participation of people, social units and groups of the community” (art. 14.d).


Rights: Right to participation of the recipients of Social Services (art. 4.5 and 6).


·         Participation guarantees (art.71).

·         The Advisory Council of the Public System of Social Services (art. 72).

·         Participation of users (art. 75).

·         Social volunteering (art.76).



Law 12/2007, of 11th October of Catalonia



Goals: “Promotion of participation, association, mutual assistance, volunteering and different forms of engagement in the affairs of the community” (art.4.i).


Main principle of the public system of Social Services: “The functioning of the Social Services must include the participation of the citizens in the programming, assessment and control. The participation of users in the follow-up and assessment of the management of services must also be granted. (art.5.e.)”


Rights: Right to participation of the recipients of Social Services (art.9-13).


·         The General Council for Social Services, which is the highest body of participation in Social Services and works closely with the department for Social Services (art. 49 and 50-53).

·         Territorial Councils for Social Services (art. 53).

·         Municipal Councils for Social Services (art. 54).

·         Supra-municipal Councils for Social Services (art. 55).


Government of Aragon.

Law 5/2009 of Social Services of Aragon, of 30th June



Goal of the policy of Social Services: “Promotion of participation, association, volunteering and other forms of engagement in community affairs” (art.2.j).


Main principle of the system of Social Services: “The public powers will promote the participation of organizations of civil society and all the affected sectors on planning and development of the Public System of Social Services” (art.5.k).


Rights of the recipients of the Social Services (art.7).


Function of the centre of Social Services: “Promotion of community life, establishing mechanisms that make possible the active participation of the community in research to find solutions for the situations of social needs and the improvement and promotion of living conditions” (art. 15.j).


Guarantee of citizens’ participation: “The Government of Aragon will ensure the citizens’ participation in the definition of policies regarding Social Services in the Autonomous Community, as well as in the planning, follow-up and assessment of the Public System of Social Services” (art. 55.1).


·         The Council of Aragon for Social Services, which is the highest body of integration of citizens’ participation, social and institutional, and which provides advice in terms of Social Services (art. 56-57).

·         Sectional or specialized bodies of participation of the Council of Aragon for Social Services (art. 56 y 58).

·         Bodies of the Regional Area of Social Services (art. 56 and 59).

·         - Participation in the centers and Social Services (art. 60).

·         Social volunteering (art. 61).



Law 13/2008 of 3rd December of Social Services of Galicia.



Goals of the Galician system of Social Services: “Promotion and fostering of community participation, engagement, mutual help and implication of citizens in the establishment of prevention initiatives and improvement of social cohesion” (art. 3.g.).


General principles of the Social Services: “The public powers will promote participation of users, families, social groups and representative entities of the people or collectives to whom the services are devoted, as well as of entities of the third sector and social agents, in its planning and in its design and follow-up. Participation will be promoted through paths and mechanisms established by regulations that should be based on democratic criteria of quality and efficiency of services” (art.4.i.).


Rights and duties of people in relation to Social Services (art. 6-7).


Function of the basic community Social Services: “Fostering of active citizens’ participation through socio-educational strategies that support solidarity and organized social cooperation” (art.11.h).


·         The Galician Council of Social Welfare is the highest advisory and participatory body of the Galician system of Social Services (art. 40).

·         The Galician Social Services Watchdog: its goal is to establish a permanent information system about the state of the Social Services in Galicia, providing a global vision of the reality of services and taking into account, among others factors, gender (art. 41).

·         The Galician Table for Social Services: a specific body of institutional participation of the social agents for the design of public policies and other structures in the field of Social Services (art. 42).

·         Citizens’ participation by users of Social Services (art. 43).


Basque Country

Law 12/2008 of 5th December of Social Services of the Basque Country



Goals of the Basque System of Social Services: “Promotion of community participation in the resolution of social needs that should be attended to in the frame of Social Services and, especially, individual and organized participation of the users and active entities in the field of Social Services” (art.6.b).


Principles: “Public powers will promote the engagement of people and of groups, as well as users’ participation in the planning and development of the Basque System of Social Services” (art. 7.j).


Rights and duties of the users of Social Services (art. 9-10).


·         The Basque Council for Social Services, which is the highest advisory and participation body (art. 48).

·         Sectional Councils for Advisory and Participatory Social Services attached to the Basque Council of Social Services (art. 48.4).

·         Territorial and local councils of Social Services (art. 49).


Balearic Islands

Law 4/2009 of 11th June of Social Services of the Balearic Islands



Goal of the social service policies: “Promotion of community participation in the fulfilment of social needs and, especially, of representative entities of disadvantaged groups” (art.3.g.).


Main principle of Social Services: “The public powers will promote and ensure the participation of people, groups and entities in the functioning of the system” (art. 4.l).


Rights and duties of the recipients of Social Services (art. 7-8).


Function of the basic community services: “Promotion of active citizens’ participation through socio-educational strategies that foster engagement and socially organized cooperation” (art.14.j).



·         The Council for Social Services of the Balearic Islands: highest advisory and social participation body for Social Services in the Balearic Islands (art. 52-53).

·         Island Councils for Territorial Social Services. Every island council will create a council for Social Services to act as an advisory and participatory body (art. 57).

·         Councils for municipal Social Services or municipalities with more than 20,000 inhabitants (art. 58).

·         Processes of participation. The responsible administrations will establish processes of participation to ensure that the citizens’ discussion benefits from access to all the relevant information and with the engagement of replying to the administration (art. 59).

·         Social volunteering (art. 60).


La Rioja

Law 7/2009 of 22th December of Social Services of La Rioja



Principles of the Public System of Social Services of La Rioja: “The public powers will promote engagement of people and groups through the most appropriate means; among others, participation in organized volunteering activities and mutual help, as well as participation of users in the planning and development of the Public System of Social Services of La Rioja” (art. 7.1).


Rights and duties of the users of Social Services (art. 8 and 10).


Goals of the Public System of Social Services of La Rioja: “Promotion of participation through community development and solving the social needs that should be attended in the frame of Social Services, especially, individual and organized participation of users and entities that act in the field of Social Services” (art. 12.e.).


·         The Council for Social Services of La Rioja, which is a collegiate advisory body attached to the Council responsible for Social Services (art. 50.1).

·         Local councils for Social Services. The municipalities and supra-municipal entities are able to create collegiate bodies at a local level for advice regarding the planning, organization and functioning of the Social Services (art. 53.1).

·         Volunteering in Social Services. The Public Administrations of La Rioja will promote citizens’ participation in volunteering in the field of Social Services, inside the frame of programs of the system, as a social value, and to promote expression of participation, solidarity and pluralism (art. 54.1).


Castilla-La Mancha

Law 14/2010 of 16th December of Social Services of Castilla-La Mancha



Definition and goals of Social Services: “The Social Services have the goal of ensuring the right of people to live with dignity as well as promoting attitudes and capacities that help social participation and community cohesion” (art. 3.3.).


Goals of the Public System of Social Services: “Promotion of normalization, participation and inclusion and social integration of the whole population” (art. 5.e.), and “creating and strengthening tools to enhance participation of the community in the resolution of social needs and, especially, individual and organized participation of users and active entities in the field of Social Services” (art. 5.h).


Main principles of the Public System of Social Services: “The participation of citizens, individually or collectively, as well as of public and private entities, in the design and development of the System, in order to ensure its efficiency” (art. 6.i).


Rights and duties of the users of Social Services (art. 7 and 8).


Functions of Social Services for Primary Care: “Promotion of social participation in the community” (art. 15.m).


·         The Advisory Council for Social Services: this is the highest representative and advisory body of the Autonomous Community in terms of Social Services (art. 69.1).

·         Participation in public centres where Social Services are offered and in private centres receiving public funds. Democratic participation processes should be established for users and their families and legal representatives (art. 73).

·         Social volunteering will be promoted and engagement and altruistic participation by people in volunteering by means of public drives or social initiatives will be fostered (art. 74).


Castilla y León

Law of 16/2010 of 20th of December of Social Services of Castilla y Leon



Goals and targets of the system of Social Services: “The Social Services will be especially targeted to (...) For this purpose, the actions of the public powers in this field will try to create conditions that benefit the actual equality of people... and will promote participation, association and voluntary and solidarity action” (art. 5.2).


Main principles: “Community and individual participation will be promoted, as will entities that represent them as recipients of the system in planning, development, follow-up and assessment of the Social Services, and of every user in the decision-making and follow-up of the actions that affect them. This will promote participation in the management of individuals’ own development and encourage free choice between the possible care alternatives for their needs” (art.7.k)…. The public powers will promote and organize participation of non-profit social initiatives in the field of Social Services and will promote the engaged collaboration of citizens through volunteering actions” (art. 7.m).






·         Fostering of social volunteering. The public administrations of Castilla y Leon will foster and support the complementary collaboration of volunteering as a priority (art. 98).

·         The Council for Social Services of Castilla y Leon, which is the highest body of participation, assessment, advice and proposals regarding the Social Services (art. 102).

·         The Provincial Council for Social Services. In every province there will be a Provincial Council of Social Services as a body for participation, advice, and proposal regarding the Social Services (art. 103).

·         Advisory Committee of Dependency Care, an advisory body that deals with care and dependency, which aims to permanently promote the active participation of most representative unions and companies (art. 104).

·         Other means of participation: promotion will also be promoted through collegiate bodies created for that specific purpose, concentrating on the different fields of social action (art. 105).

·         Every center integrated in the system of Social Services or public responsibility will ensure the democratic participation of users, families or legal representatives in the functioning and further development of services and activities offered by them (art. 106).



4.3     Participation as a goal and a principle

The most recent laws of the autonomous regions identify the fostering of participation as a goal and/or a main principle of the system (Law of Cantabria 2/2007, Law of Aragon 5/2009, Law of the Basque Country 12/2008, Law of Castilla-La Mancha 14/2010, Law of Castilla y Leon 16/2010), just as a goal (Law of Navarre 15/2006, Law of Cataluña 12/2007, Law of Galicia 13/2008, Law of Aragon 5/2009, Law of Balearic Islands 4/2009, Law of La Rioja 7/2009, Law of Castilla-La Mancha 14/2010), or as a benefit offered by the policies of Social Services (Law of the Principality of Asturias 1/2003), Law of Castilla-La Mancha 14/2010). Several regions also define promotion of participation as a municipal competence and/or a specific function of basic Social Services.

The most recently enacted laws, for example Law 14/2010 of Castilla-La Mancha, consider participation as a goal, a main principle and a technical benefit of the Social Services of Primary Care. They foster involvement and social engagement with the aim that people and groups become active advocates of the possibilities for improvement, encouraging collaboration with the Social Services. Participation is considered to have cross-sectional benefits, since it promotes positive attitudes towards peaceful coexistence of citizens, strengthening the community environment as a context that ensures the continuity of achieved development (art. 36 h). Furthermore, the Law of Castilla y León 16/2010 regards participation as a goal and a principle that should drive the system and be promoted, facilitated and ensured by the public powers at every level: so citizens, social initiatives, social representatives and users.

4.4     Orientation mechanisms of associative and direct participation

The different laws of the autonomous regions include the creation of mechanisms to orientate and direct citizens’ participation, as well as definitions of the rights and duties of the users of centres, services and programs, directly or in an individual manner as well as through representative social (non-profit initiatives and volunteering) entities. Both acts of citizenship are expressed specifically in the portfolios of services of the laws enacted from 2005 that “formally” support the protection of users with a principle of ensuring participation and a detailed description of rights and duties, such as the participation of people as agents of change and the groups and entities of the civil society in the functioning of Social Services. Participation was already present in the initial Social Services laws devised during the ’80s and ’90s, as well as in later regulatory developments. The latest developments rely upon dissemination to portfolios of services, correlation with quality, rights and duties of the users and professionals, and with the strengthening of social initiatives for the provision of services and consumers’ free choice despite increasing externalization/privatization of such services.

These mechanisms include strategic and sectional plans, which seek to ensure participation in the planning and management of Social Services as well as creating advisory organs of direct and associative participation such as:

·         Regional mechanisms for inter-administrative and interdepartmental coordination when looking at further planning for the region – strategic plans and maps – that ensure the participation of the responsible administrations (watchdogs and/or Councils of Inter-administrative or Inter-institutional Coordination).

·         Technical committees for the study of social needs and assessment of efficiency and quality of Social Services and Committees of Ethics for Social Services.

·         Regional bodies for participation, with advisory and developmental functions with the aim of articulating and promoting participation and supporting a better establishment, quality and efficiency of Social Services (Councils of the autonomous regions).

·         Regional advisory bodies for care of dependents. (Advisory Committee of Dependency Care).

·         Collegiate bodies for sections of social action.

·         Provincial, island or autonomous regional bodies for participation, based on advice and proposals, attached to the Councils for Social Services of the Provinces/Regions/Islands.

4.5     Participation, rights and duties of users.

In terms of participation of service users, the “second” and “third” generation laws give them, at least formally, a more active role, especially in participation in all decisions that affect individuals or society, either directly or indirectly. Every entity and center for Social Services should have procedures that enable democratic participation by users or their legal representatives, according to what the rules determine. For that purpose, a Council of users has often been established to provide one of these mechanisms. It is interesting to point out that the rights and duties of users that appear in the most recent laws are clearly influenced by the Law 39/2006[3] of Promotion of Personal Autonomy and Care for people in situations of dependence (LAPAD, for its acronym in Spanish). However, systematic assessment of the application of this law shows that the importance given to the user/recipient regarding decision-making in the process of diagnosis and social involvement, as well as its relationship to quality criteria, is “formal/virtual” rather than real.

In conclusion, taking into account recent studies (Gallego & Subirats, 2011, Pastor & Sánchez, 2014, among others), it has been observed that people maintain a traditional perspective of the Social Services as an outlet for care and charitable service. The work provided by Social Services is usually linked to poverty and at-risk groups. A negative vision of the Social Services has also been observed, as well as an inadequate and insufficient offer of services in relation to the needs of the population in terms of intensity of coverage, and there is a tendency towards an excessive dependency of the media and public agenda that could cause a mistaken prioritization of public involvement (extension) more centered on populism. The heterogeneity of the region in terms of extension and coverage intensity tends to be based on insufficient funding. The arbitrary nature of political patronage can also be observed in the array of opportunities on offer and the real impact of policies on participation.

5           Analysis of the participation mechanisms of the policies of local Social Services

The most common mechanisms of citizens’ participation in the Policy of Social Services are the following:

1.       Structures for participation on an associative basis, or Councils: These are advisory mechanisms on a regional or sectional basis that are extensive providers of information and advice; they are able to receive proposals.

2.       Public decentralized bodies of the autonomous regions, or Institutes. These have their own legal personality, as well as responsibilities on general and/or sectional Social Services and a degree of independence in terms of decisions and economic-administrative and technical management of the area. They combine decision-making, execution/management of agreements and participation.

3.       Non-formal mechanisms of participation that run on an associative basis. These are informal dimensions of the execution of facilitation by means of periodical meetings with participation of technicians of Social Services with organizations within the region as well as coordinating with technicians of other systems. The initiation, announcement, agenda making and organization are carried out by the Directors/Coordinators of the Centers of Social Services, sometimes without support in terms of affairs and agreements. Its goals include to offer information, to detect needs, to ask for participation, to promote inter-associative cooperation and to create networks and protocols of technical inter-institutional collaboration.

The results of this research allow identification of the possibilities, limitations and trends of the Regional Councils for Social Welfare in terms of capacity to influence the process of democratization in the building of policies of personal services at a municipal level. The most significant ones are the following:

·         A regulatory framework that is adequate and proactive enough to support the creation and consolidation of bodies for decentralized management and citizens’ participation in both general/regional and municipal competence areas, population sectors and/or in terms of tackling social problems.

·         A model of institutional participation that gives local administrations, by means of a responsible politician and/or technician in that competency, a large and flexible capacity for control on the strategy, opportunities, agenda, affairs, main players and participative process.

·         The composition and representation of the Councils offer, mostly, participation on an associative basis. Federations, organizations and associations are clearly more present than citizens are, either as individuals, in platforms or as minority entities. Sectional representation is also privileged in comparison to regional representation.

·         Difficulties of representation and real bilateral participation in the fragmented and atomized associative reality, especially in large municipalities, where the social fabric is numerous and diverse.

·         Asymmetric contexts of power between different social organizations in terms of unequal capacity and opportunity to access the spheres where decisions on public affairs are made. Certain social organizations therefore end up providing the lion’s share of social representation in multiple participatory forums.

·         Unequal capacity and ability of participants to give political opinions in the processes of participation, characterized, sometimes, by language issues or the fact that bureaucratic/technocratic document that lead to the exclusion of certain representatives, especially “opinions” considered “non-qualified”. This intensifies the representative asymmetry of the groups and problems handled by Social Services and, at the same time, produces feelings of “disqualification” from the political action in people with lower communicative abilities and capability for technical argumentation.

·         Advisory objectives, non-binding for the authorities (giving and receiving information) and thus based on a limited concept of participation, understood in terms of information, advice and collaboration.

·         A gap between the formal (regulatory) and real objectives that are achieved in practice as well as in the diverse perception of the players involved, in terms of both their objectives and whether their expectations have been met.

·         Favorable assessment of the social organizations with regard to participation mechanisms in terms of the possibility of improving dialogue and exchange of information between Social Services professionals. Staff appreciate participation as a tool to detect social needs, speed up processes and, sometimes, improve coordination of the everyday issues in the local area (follow-up of cases, admissions and absences in receipt of economic benefits and services, information about projects and results, etc.).

·         Communication, fostered by mechanisms that support participation, has improved, in some situations, the referral of cases and the development of particular actions between the Centers of Social Services and social organizations.

·         A progressive bureaucratization, professionalization, functional specialization and dependency of the associative sector are observed in terms of public administration. The procedures and conditions of access to the – increasingly in-demand and yet diminishing – sectional public funds (contracts, agreements, subsidies) can lead entities to reduce their potential flexibility and capacity for innovation, as ultimately the government determines what (centers and services), why (sense and goals), how (ways of involvement) and for whom (target groups and/or problems) the services should exist.

·         The public logic, which is characterized in a relational context by high economic dependency and dependency on provision of services, causes problems for organizations in terms of their identity, autonomy, ethics and strategies of social action, meaning they rely upon inter-associative relationships where the competence prevails over cooperation/networks/alliances, defining the difference between us and more consolidated welfare models (e.g. the Nordic or the Bismarckian model, where those entities share responsibilities with the government).

·         The participatory process is considered an administrative procedure, linked to the fulfillment of deadlines, regulations, etc. It is also seen as a process where analysis and deliberation of problems and political action for implementation and assessment are forgotten or only “rescued” to fulfill technical and/or administrative requirements without any political feature.

·         The technical and administrative management of social affairs has a main role in the agenda, organization, functioning and dynamics of these mechanisms. The participatory process is characterized by technical speech from and/or as a consequence of politically decided questions, discouraging participation.

·         Mechanisms of participation are not considered as a forum by the organizations, but as a point of periodical meetings with the local government where they are offered information about the actions carried out or that will be carried out on a social policy level. Its participants become “invited-consumers” who are offered a chance to participate, but they are not main contributors. They can lend their voices but these are filtered and watered down by the agenda and strategy of the political leaders.

·         There is ignorance on the part of citizens and non-participative entities in terms of the existence and/or functioning of the various Councils, exacerbated by procedures of formalization and function, which means it is hard for the layman to follow previous and subsequent actions with enough information, dissemination, advice, access to proposals and debate. This insufficient transparency supports the arbitrariness in the selection of contributors and functioning of mechanisms, causing bias in the participatory process

6           Conclusions

This analysis reveals that most local governments have created councils, or facilitated participation forums, with several degrees of information and advisory spaces in some cases. They retain decision-making as a responsibility of the bodies of the municipal government. Contributors attend the councils with documented and exhaustive information, but this process is usually biased and filtered by those who offer such information. This determines the nature of the individual and collective opinions about the reality that are gathered, influencing the presentation of objective and possible alternatives. The lack of correlation between opinions, and the perception of being unable to influence local social politics in a practical way, leads members to believe that they are “guests” and “non-participants” – feeling that they have expressed – in the decision-making process, which leads to non-attendance of the sessions. The organizations keep “silent”, have an absent and even conformist role during the sessions, and they use other paths to process their demands and to influence decision-making, as is explained above. These participation mechanisms, understood as mechanisms of popular control and accountability (Monsivais, 2013), are insufficient.

The objectives of the Councils are advisory, not binding on the authorities (giving and collecting information) and, therefore, based on a narrow concept of participation, understood in terms of information, consultation and collaboration. It notes the existence of a gap between formal and real objectives are achieved in practice, as well as the different perceptions that actors have about the objectives they have and they should meet (expectations). On the one hand, social institutions involved are perceived as a tool to stay informed about local social issues, exchange views, to inform the administration of the actions they take, have a space for encounter and collaboration between social entities that are provides information about the existence and work each one does, coordinate services and activities and transfer of collective needs and demands. This communication has improved, in some cases, referral of cases and the development of concrete actions between the Department of Social Services and social organizations. These very highly valued these mechanisms, particularly by the possibility of dialogue and exchange of information with social services professionals. For technicians is a tool for identifying social needs, streamline processes and, sometimes, better coordination of daily matters of the District (case tracking, ups and downs in economic benefits and services, project information and results). One of the most visible and important aspects of participation is analyzed jurisdiction in determining the ways of doing, the methodological aspects of the meetings, issues and how they are addressed and do not facilitate the consultation, deliberation and  reparation proposals. The participatory process is perceived and considered a formality more administrative than substantive.

The policy analysis of citizen participation in municipal social services shows that most municipalities have set up councils, allowing opportunities for participation in levels of information and booking times for consultation and decisionmaking bodies of government municipal.

The actors come with a documented, comprehensive information but also biased and filtered by whom and what information and how it is offered, which determines the formation of individual and collective views of the reality and alternatives that present themselves as objective and possible.  The information is not something given, it is undergoing to a process of data building and previous interpretations that are used to define reality and propose possibilities courses of action. The consultation, if any, appears as a “democracy rite” limited to express, not always, the opinions about what is being asked in the context of alternatives defined as possible. It does not involve a discussion but just an aggregation of opinions and thus, more related to a strategy of knowing the possibilities of success or failure of a particular action - political and / or technical - to do or even performed. The topics and the like are raised, often can not choose to amend or, in the case, if the margin is very small. The limited involvement of the agreements and the perception of not local influence in social policy, in a practical way, means that members feel sometimes “guest”, “not participating” in the process of decision making. It appears situations of “absenteeism”.

In conclusion, transparency and real and effective innovation and reform of the ways in which citizens can participate in the design, management and assessment of the policies of the Social Services are essential elements to generate/support/rebuild the quality of democracy on a local level. Its implementation will allow improvement of the efficiency and efficacy of public policies and help disseminate the benefits of Social Services, as well as the process of making significant and binding decisions for the social players and users of centers/services, leading to a progressive vitalization of the social capital of our municipalities, as well as the social organizations where we work.


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Author´s Address:
Enrique Pastor Seller
Universidad de Murcia
Campus de Espinardo. Facultad de Trabajo Social. 30.071 Espinardo (Murcia) España.

[1] These are advisory mechanisms on a regional or sectional basis that are extensive providers of information and advice; they are able to receive proposals

[2] These have their own legal personality, as well as responsibilities on general and/or sectional Social Services and a degree of independence in terms of decisions and economic-administrative and technical management of the area. They combine decision-making, execution/management of agreements and participation.

[3] Law 39/2006, 14th December, of Promotion of Personal Autonomy and Care for people in dependency situations, published in B.O.E. [official state gazette] num. 299, 15th December 2006.