Social economy network Sweden

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NEW: Swedish Social Enterprise Thematic Group
blog of the Swedish Social Enterprise Thematic Group

see also Handlingsplan för arbetsintegrerande sociala företag

Sweden's social economy national network in EQUAL

Sweden - a firm place for social firms

In a country that prides itself on the universal coverage of its welfare state, it has not been easy to establish a role for the social economy. But by focusing on the wonders that empowerment can work for the most excluded people, Swedish EQUAL’s national network in the social economy has won ministerial recognition for social enterprise and found a permanent place in employment policy. A National Action Plan for Social Enterprise (Handlingsplan för arbetsintegrerande sociala företag) was adopted in April 2010.

Sweden established its national thematic network in the social economy almost by accident. When it first set EQUAL up, the government wanted to take a broad approach to entrepreneurship, and so invited proposals for the theme in general. But once the development partnerships (DPs) had been selected, it transpired that all six were actually working in the social economy, and so under this impulsion the thematic network Socialt Företagande – en väg till Arbetsmarknaden (Social Entrepreneurship – a Way to the Labour Market) was born.


The network is the place to be

“The network was set up in 2003 primarily to facilitate internal networking among the development partnerships, but with the aim of forming a National Thematic Group,” says Stig Wikström, who is responsible for supervising the network on behalf of the Swedish ESF Council.

“Apart from representatives of the six DPs, the ESF Council and NUTEK (the government’s business development agency), we have Jon Olsson, who represents the local co-operative development agencies (LKUs) as well as being a member of the European Economic and Social Committee. Most importantly the network is chaired by the Social Democrat MP Eva Arvidsson, with her Centre Party counterpart Margareta Andersson MP as Vice-Chair. There are also some beneficiaries – ex-prisoners and addicts – and finally we invite the evaluators from each of the DPs who form a sort of research sub-committee. So at full strength a network meeting can involve nearly 30 people.”

Some of the network’s popularity and effectiveness doubtless stems from its high political profile. "We meet in the parliament building and have a good reputation in the government,” Mr Wikström continues, “so we have a significant influence. For instance the government consults us systematically on new policy developments. The network has become a social actor in its own right.”

A working definition

The network saw social enterprise as a much-needed solution to long-standing labour market exclusion.5 ”In Sweden 350,000 people are on early retirement pensions, 130,000 are on income support, 100,000 have been on sick leave for over a year, 36,000 have been unemployed for over two years and 26,000 are prisoners, homeless or substance abusers,“ says network coordinator Eva Johansson of NUTEK. “Many of them want to work but cannot do so without a structure that empowers them.”

The network aimed to work on specifically entrepreneurial aspects, rather than the social economy in general, which would have been too broad a field. So one of the first things it did was to try to draw up a working definition of what a social enterprise (sociala företag) is. “We decided that the criteria are that the enterprise aims to integrate disadvantaged people, is independent from the state, is democratically managed and does not distribute profits,” Mr Wikström says. Participation and empowerment are key values. The reason social enterprises work so well is that their members are close to the users because they share the same experiences – an ex-addict can understand another addict’s needs so much better than a government official.” In a country where social services have traditionally been the preserve of the public sector, there is some suspicion that social enterprises might lead to loss of service quality or exploitation of workers. “In the end, the market will decide,” Mr Wikström thinks. "If social enterprises produce good quality it will open people’s minds.”

According to Eva Johansson, social enterprise is a new name for a well-established phenomenon: "We are beginning to achieve recognition of social enterprises as businesses and as a way to integrate disadvantaged people into the labour market. We have started with the groups who are most in need, but more and more people are looking to social enterprise as a solution for a broader range of people. It is a vehicle to deliver services that are complementary to those delivered by the state,” she adds.

Going public

In October 2005 the network hosted a major conference in Stockholm entitled Det Sociala Företaget – en spirande Möjlighet? (Social enterprise – a growing possibility?) that attracted 170 people. The event signalled several significant changes brought about by the network’s activity over the first half of EQUAL.

Addressing the conference, the Minister for Working Life, Hans Karlsson, admitted that he had always thought the public sector should meet all needs, but had now changed his view: “I’m glad I was forced to build up knowledge in the field of social entrepreneurship.... Now I regard myself as a devoted enthusiast who really wants to work for a positive development.... Social entrepreneurship is important because it involves people who are not reached by general labour market policies.”

Then in December 2005 the Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications hosted a learning seminar for politicians and civil servants from all ministries, to discuss the whole spectrum of EQUAL findings. The Social Entrepreneurship network was present on the theme ‘Ways to the Labour Market’ (covering those furthest away from the labour market, social enterprise, ways back to working life, access issues etc.) as well as three other themes. Finally, to strengthen the impact the government has invited the network for a further hearing or learning seminar in February 2006.

So it seems that at last the message has percolated up to the top levels of government. “The issue of social entrepreneurship covers many policy areas. So when we were looking for a speaker at the above conference no minister saw social enterprise as their responsibility,” says Mr Wikström, “but I am glad to say that our Chair, Eva Arvidsson, intervened. She went to see the Prime Minister, Göran Persson, and asked him to nominate a minister. This he did, so now social enterprise at least partly has a home in the cabinet, within the Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communication.”

National social entrepreneurship action plan

The conference was also the venue for the unveiling of a proposed national action plan for social entrepreneurship entitled Growth through more and stronger social enterprises. “This is a living document, that grows as we go along,” says Mr Wikström. “It starts with the needs of the most disadvantaged persons, such as ex-drug addicts and ex-prisoners, for whom social enterprises can have spectacular benefits. So it focuses on integration enterprises – what in Britain would be called ‘social firms’ – rather than the social economy in general, and links this to the goals of the Lisbon strategy.

It defines the key challenges for social enterprises as being building knowledge, achieving recognition, gaining fair treatment and legitimacy, raising finance in the market, switching from a subsidy to a contract culture, becoming active in labour market policy, supporting new social entrepreneurs and setting up support structures.

The plan makes the following policy recommendations:

  • NUTEK should continue to support the sector, via intermediary organisations like the LKUs (branches of Coompanion;
  • social enterprises should be used as an instrument both in labour market policy, complementary to the existing Samhall sheltered workshops, and also in regional policy (fitting in with the Lisbon strategy and the EU Structural Funds);
  • a shift should be made from benefits to wages, based on the principles of empowerment, user choice and rehabilitation;
  • public procurement should take account of social aspects and the interests of users.

If this plan is adopted, it could make for far-reaching changes. But change is already visible, as Mr Wikström explains: “There is already an opening for smaller social enterprises. Previously, the government channelled all its support for the work integration of disadvantaged people through one state-owned sheltered enterprise, Samhall, which employs 23,000 people. Now, smaller social enterprises can bid for support, and the grant follows the person (even if, for the time being, the sum is reduced).”

As far as the EU’s Structural Funds go, the social economy is already written into the National Action Plan for Employment for 2005-2008. Guideline 17 of this document says:

“Social enterprises could play an important part in the work to integrate vulnerable groups in society and working life. These firms facilitate the transfer from passive subsidies to rehabilitation, training and work in an effective way through entrepreneurship which develops new business areas and new companies. Thereby they can contribute both to economic growth and a higher employment rate. Within the framework of the EQUAL project ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ a proposal for a National Action Plan has been elaborated in order to improve the conditions for social entrepreneurship. The project constitutes a platform for co-operation between social firms, advisers, interest groups, NUTEK and the Swedish ESF Council.”

Regional offices have already been enquiring about how best to implement this guideline, so it seems that the social economy has won support both at national and local level.

From strength to strength

The coming of round 2 of EQUAL does not mean a disruption in the network’s activity: three new development partnerships join the network, but most of the old ones will stay involved. “Legal structures are not what is needed, but quality is a big issue,” says Mr Wikström, “so the network will carry on working on social auditing. But there are some new issues too. Topics to be developed are agency or service co-ops for the self-employed (business and employment co-operatives) and social franchising. But as before the key factors are knowledge and recognition for social enterprise.”

Ms Johansson sees one of the network’s key results as being a stronger national and regional support network for social enterprises. “At the moment, the government supports the local cooperative development agencies, through NUTEK, to the tune of €4 million a year, as well as supporting dedicated agencies for women’s and ethnic minority businesses. We hope that they might upgrade this into a more ambitious ten-year programme. EQUAL has helped build the case for a stronger support structure.”


Eva Johansson
Liljeholmsvägen 32, S - 117 86 Stockholm, Sweden
Tel: +46 8 681 9661
E-mail: mailto://

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