Lessons from EQUAL's work in the social economy

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Toby Johnson, May 2011


Unveiling citizen energy

EQUAL took place at a period of tremendous energy and growth in the social enterprise field, as governments and civil society responded in different ways to social challenges such as EU enlargement, demographic ageing and globalisation. This change is still going on and EQUAL helped to create a shared agenda.

It revealed that there is a significant and very varied range of activities going on, and a lot of enthusiasm to improve practice. The social economy was the third most popular of the nine themes in EQUAL, with a dedicated budget in 14 countries (as well as projects in additional countries), over 400 development partnerships, which were allocated around €300m of ESF resources.

EQUAL lifted the lid on this variety. See File:EQUAL social economy thematic analysis table.doc[1]

An undeveloped public response

Yet it also revealed that the understanding of the public authorities is very patchy.

Some countries have stable partnership structures and fluid paths for exchange between them and the development of new hybrid ways of doing things. In others, citizen initiatives to solve social problems meet with incomprehension or are rebuffed, for lack of capacity or understanding. In some places, progress is repeatedly made and then checked or reversed owing to political changes. Some existing approaches are applying the wrong tools to the problem simply because these are the only tools that exist – for instance the work that is being undertaken on statistics and EU-level legal frameworks. These are important for symbolic reasons but the more recent initiative on social innovation is much more at the heart of the issue because it goes further than simply the “level playing field”. It seeks to influence motivations and knock heads together.

The Social Business Initiative has the potential to do this in spades, but not if institutors are content to let it be limited to issues of financial transparency.

The issue is complex and crosses traditional policy domains. It calls for a sophisticated response from government, which is essentially about providing a framework within which the goodwill and socially-directed energies of citizens can be put to good use. This means working with and making use of the existing organisations of civil society (social capital), as well as bringing financial capital to play. It is fundamental to encourage the growth of strong representative structures which can mediate the demand for solutions and the supply of energy and commitment, as well as human, material and financial resources. These are dependent on consistent openness and the gradual creation of trust.

Recommendations for policy-makers

EQUAL drew up a broad menu for pubic authority action, with good practice examples, essentially in 8 areas:[2]

  • a coherent strategy by government
  • a suitable legal and financial framework
  • local co-planning partnerships
  • comprehensive business support services, both generalist and specialist
  • sectoral development approaches in growth sectors such as care, neighbourhood services, the environment, culture & creativity
  • easier access to larger markets, especially through public procurement
  • measurement of social impact
  • a community of practice

In particular it set out a detailed policy analysis in two fields:

Follow-up actions

EQUAL provide a co-ordination function which had hitherto been absent, of bringing government representatives together in a European Thematic Group to address the role, of the social economy. This group defined five issues to be addressed in the follow-up to EQUAL, which have been taken up by the Better Future for the Social Economy (BFSE) ESF learning network:

  • Community law, state aid and social services of general interest
  • measuring social added value and quality standards
  • socially responsible public procurement and public social partnership
  • replication through social franchising
  • financial instruments and mechanisms of fund allocation to the social economy


  1. see table on analysis of Round 2 transnational co-operation agreements (TCAs)at http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/equal_consolidated/data/document/etg2-se-rd2analysis.pdf
  2. see presentation at http://www.slideshare.net/TobyJ/8-aspects-of-good-practice-in-support-for-wises
  3. http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/equal_consolidated/data/document/Handling%20exclusion%20through%20social%20firms.pdf
  4. http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/equal_consolidated/data/document/Value%20for%20money%20from%20social%20firms.pdf

Appendix: extract from EQUAL final evaluation

Impact of EQUAL work in the social economy: extracted from EQUAL programme evaluation, executive summary, page xxviii (http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/equal/data/document/eva-eu-sum_en.pdf). Emphasis added.

17. Secondly, added value has stemmed from the exploration and/or further structuring of relatively new fields of intervention. ... Another example of thematic added value lies in the global approach taken to the social economy. Whereas it is often considered merely as a vehicle for the reintegration of vulnerable people in the labour market, EQUAL has promoted it as an economic sector per se, in the sense of an alternative organisation of economic activity. It thus contributes an alternative approach, not just to employment, but also to the economy as a whole.

62. The main areas of innovations put forward by the national evaluators include: [...]

  • A range of EQUAL initiatives have sought to professionalize, equip and structure sectors such as the social economy and the care sector.

Potential and initial impacts of EQUAL at the EU level and across Member States

115. Overall it is still difficult at this stage to form a fair view of the impacts achieved by EQUAL in the different Member States. Many DPs were still at the beginning or in the midst of their Action 3 (transfer and mainstreaming) projects at the time of evaluation fieldwork. Institutional impacts have by far been the most documented. Impact on policies are said by most evaluators to be limited, however quite significant examples have been provided. There is a notable lack of reporting on impacts on organisations (other than partner organisations). Impacts can be said to still be very much local in scope.

116. Drawing on the work of the European Thematic Groups, on our review of national evaluation reports as well as on our own fieldwork, we have nevertheless identified innovations and their potential or initial impacts in areas of relevance for the European Employment Strategy, the Social Inclusion process and other Community strategies and programmes. We have related these achievements (innovations and impacts) to those of the Integrated Guidelines where we thought they made a contribution, as well as to the relevant Social Inclusion objective and other European strategies and programmes.

117. Potential and initial impacts on Integrated Guideline 15 (Promote a more entrepreneurial culture and create a supportive environment for SMEs):

  • Reinforced support mechanisms and access to finance in existing business support centres and creation of new integrated support centres: ‘non traditional’ entrepreneurs, especially women (e.g. in remote rural areas) have been drawn in the business creation process. In some Member States (ES, UKgb) there is evidence that some of these initiatives have secured or are in the process of securing mainstream funding. However, the ‘opening up of the business creation to all’, which was supposed to be an important added value of EQUAL with regard to the Guideline has not been well documented so far with regard to access of marginalised and vulnerable people, and questions have been raised as to the relevance of such an objective.
  • Creation of second level networks, i.e. networks between business support centres or between social enterprises, which have contributed to the professionalisation of their members.
  • Recognition of the social economy as an economic sector' rather than only as a vehicle for the labour market reintegration of vulnerable people: new support structures, such as offices of social entrepreneurship and social franchising systems, have been developed. The status of ‘social co-operatives’ (an Italian institution) has been taken up in GR and SE. Governance arrangements were improved, particularly with regard to the place of social enterprises in public procurement. Many of these developments have good sustainability prospects – indeed some of them are already institutionalised.