EQUAL National Thematic Networks
Success stories of national thematic networks in business creation
See also Social economy national networks
There were eight national thematic networks in the business creation theme during round one of EQUAL: Germany, Netherlands, Spain, UK, Czech Republic, France, Greece and Portugal. The first four of these networks are described below.
On a preliminary scan of the eight networks, it appeared that the four networks chosen for study had advanced further down the mainstreaming chain and had started to have an impact on policy at different levels. Some of the remaining four had embarked on very promising procedures for identifying transferable good practice but, at the time of writing, they had not yet reached the stage of communicating this information to a wider audience of policy-makers.
- For example, the French national thematic network gave birth to a new mainstreaming partnership called Atout TPE, made up of some of the main national players in business support and microfinance. It has selected and analysed a series of EQUAL good practices concerning the creation and development of micro-enterprises among hard to reach groups. it has used this material to produce a CD-ROM and at the time of writing was just embarking on a major national communication campaign targeted at local authority decision makers. It will be extremely important to take into account the lessons from this experience.
- Similarly, the Portuguese national thematic network has used an extremely rigorous three-stage model for selecting and validating good practice (by peers, experts and policy makers). It has used this to produce a “living document - Empreender por Novos Caminhos. Living Document. Emprendedorsimo e Desenvolvimento Local - with examples of good practice and recommendation in five key areas they see as being central for opening up entrepreneurship to all.
These are “support for developing the competences of entrepreneurs”, the “organisation and revitalisation of support structures”, the “launching of experimental systems of microfinance”, the “promotion of networks of cooperation between new entrepreneurial activities” and the “promotion of an entrepreneurial culture”. The methods for validating good practice should be born in mind by other national thematic networks. However, they have not yet started the work of communicating these findings to policy-makers.
Both the Czech Republic (2 DPs in round 1) and Greece (5 DPs) had smaller networks than the other countries but they also have advanced in identifying the main good practices and lessons from EQUAL. The NTN in Greece has produced a study about the viability of business support structures, a guide for start-ups, a short video film and has its own portal.
There are two broad models of thematic networks in business creation. The first is more bottom-up and is composed mainly of the DPs (Germany, Spain and to a certain extent the UK); the other is more top-down and gives policy makers a greater say in the priorities and make-up of the network from the start (the Netherlands and the UK).
- Both models obviously have strengths and weaknesses. The top-down model allows for EQUAL to be used as an instrument for piloting changes that are already seen as potentially important by policy makers; but it can screen out new innovations. The bottom-up approach may be better at brainstorming new solutions and building ownership on the ground but then there is a longer way to go to bring policy makers on board. Both approaches have achieved significant advances and it will now be important to draw out the best of each.
- For example, guides of EQUAL good practice complete with recommendations classified according to certain priority themes have been produced by Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal. The UK is currently putting all its results onto an online repository which will make it easy to search for policy messages from EQUAL by theme and then see what cases studies, evidence and tools have been produced to support this. There is a lot in common in these approaches and much to be learned from each other in terms of developing more systematic methods for identifying the “jewels” of good practice within EQUAL as well as converting these into a bank of relevant policy messages.
- Further down the mainstreaming chain, some networks have been very successful in involving policy makers. For example, it was an extremely astute decision to make the person directly responsible for the national small business start-up strategy in the UK the chair of the NTN. Similarly, the Dutch involvement of policy makers both directly in the NTN and in its dinners and meetings is very interesting. Finally, the German NTG has been very successful in building a consensus around certain EQUAL tools and methods, creating national associations and then entering into discussions with policy makers.
- All Thematic Networks should now make a major effort to draw in decisions makers responsible for entrepreneurship policy in both employment and industrial (or economic) ministries into a dialogue about priorities and activities. In some cases, the main channel for mainstreaming may be at regional level (eg Spain). But whatever, the decision makers must start to feel that they have a greater stake in the EQUAL pilot activities.
- As mentioned there is a remarkable similarity in the priority subthemes and categories along which all thematic groups (including the four above) are selecting good practice from EQUAL and transforming these into policy messages. These are also totally compatible with the work developed by the European Thematic Network. In round two of EQUAL there is, therefore, considerable potential for pooling the work of the different networks to produce common tools, methods and messages that can have a greater impact on policy at EU and national levels. *However, this will require more resources at national level for joint mainstreaming work. In general, there is insufficient coordination between the resources available to individual DPs for mainstreaming work (Action 3) and for transnational cooperation and the collective work of the national thematic networks. The national thematic networks seem to have less own resources than the first two. In some cases, they simply become a forum for discussing the individual activities of the DPs.
- This situation is even more pronounced for the European dimension of mainstreaming. Few Thematic Networks seem to make systematic provisions for involvement at EU level. There is insufficient communication and two way exchange between NTNs in different Member States and between them and the European activities. The Commission's proposals for Communities of Practice could go some way to solve these problems - if they are taken up.