Onderzoek & Onderwijs

Services Wanted? Understanding the non-take-up of social support at the local level

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In many welfare states, local governments are facing a critical public management challenge: they must invent and organize new modes of social service delivery while simultaneously addressing severe budget cuts. 

In response, they ‘reach out’ and aim to coordinate service delivery processes in which third sector organizations fulfil an increasingly important role.

Although it remains a key task for local governments, their role has shifted from that of direct service deliverer to facilitator of social support. Policymakers also urge individuals in need of social support to decrease the use of publicly funded services as much as possible and to take on a more active responsibility for their personal welfare problems.

Individuals are now expected to seek alternative forms of support from a wide variety of third sector organizations, ranging from human service associations and social welfare organizations to various types of citizen initiatives (neighbourhood projects, online social support platforms, co-operatives, etc.).

“Individuals are now expected to seek alternative forms of support from a wide variety of third sector organizations.”

However, even if sufficient social services are offered by these third sector organizations, we cannot assume that individuals in need of support actually ask for them. 

Our fundamental understanding of this phenomenon, which we refer to as the non-take-up of social support, is still limited.

Research question & approach

To improve our understanding of this phenomenon, we will investigate the determinants of non-take-up of social support. Our central research question is, therefore, the following: how can non-take-up of social support be explained?

“Main research question: how can non-take-up of social support be explained?”

Based on psychological, socio-epidemiological, socio-cultural, and public administration research, we distil potential determinants of non-take-up of social support. Although each discipline offers a wealth of information about the determinants of help-seeking behaviour in various contexts, this knowledge is rarely directly related to the specific phenomenon of nontake-up of social support.

Additionally, these academic disciplines have developed rather separately over time and, while differing in many respects, they also (though often implicitly) show some overlap.


We examine the extent to which we find empirical evidence for these determinants based on the narratives (interviews) of 55 individuals and two focus groups (n = 16) in the Dutch municipality of The Hague (500,000 inhabitants).

Given the challenging nature of recruiting interviewees from this ‘hidden or hard-to-reach
population’ (Shaghaghi et al. 2011), we selectively sampled at different locations where individuals, perforce, come to meet their other help needs.

In our study, these locations are the emergency room of a local hospital, different locations of the food bank and the offices of social work councillors. The two focus groups were organized to further our understanding of reasons for non-take-up (Morgan 1996) and to strengthen the internal validity of our study.


Our results indicate that (perceived) bureaucratic obstacles and the desire to maintain one’s (feeling of) independence are critical barriers to help-seeking behaviour for social support from third sector social service providers.

“Bureaucratic obstacles and the desire to maintain one’s (feeling of) independence are critical barriers to help-seeking behaviour for social support.”

Bureaucratic factors are mentioned most frequently (n = 24) by our interviewees as obstacles to social support services. As described in our multi-level model, bureaucratic barriers can manifest themselves at the system level, the organizational level, and the individual level. According to our data, most pronounced are the bureaucratic problems and obstacles at the organizational level.

Complicated bureaucratic rules and procedures, inadequate information provided by organizations about (the availability of and eligibility for) specific support provisions, language issues, but also negative (previous) experiences with (other) third sector organizations, are oft-cited obstacles to effective utilization of social support.

The second most important determinant for non-take-up that we derived from our data is the desire to retain one’s (feeling of) independence and self-esteem (n = 22). If an individual feels threatened in his/her—often deeply felt—desire to remain independent and wants to maintain his/her selfesteem, he/she is more likely to be reluctant to ask for social support

Finally, we do find some evidence for socialization (n = 11) and feeling rules (n = 13), but overall these determinants appear to play a less dominant role in the non-take-up of social support.


Overall, our study suggests that the causes of non-takeup of social support are neither confined merely to ‘external’ bureaucratic barriers nor are they limited to factors at the individual level.

Instead, it seems that non-take-up of social support is caused by an intricate interplay of different factors that operate at different levels—ranging from the ‘internal, personal level’ to the ‘interpersonal, social level’ and the ‘broader, organizational/system level’ — throughout different phases of the help-seeking process.

In other words: non-take-up of social support is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. We argue that it should be studied from a perspective that incorporates insights from social-psychological, socio-epidemiological, socio-cultural, and public administration research.

Hopefully, this forms the starting point of a fruitful dialogue and exchange amongst different academic disciplines in the pursuit of better understanding of non-take-up of social support.

Full article (Open Access)

Reijnders M.A.W., Schalk J. & Steen T.P.S. (2018), Services Wanted? Understanding the Non-take-up of Social Support at the Local Level, VOLUNTAS 29(6): 1360–1374.

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