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Mainstreaming is the act of broadening the application of a change or innovation from a small-scale pilot to the whole of a programme or policy domain. It involves recognising that the results of an experiment are positive and the learning deserves to be applied more widely. It thus requires three mechanisms, to:

  • finance and conduct experiments
  • distinguish success from failure
  • scale up the successes


The term owes its origins to the battle in schools in the USA over the rights of children with disabilities to be educated in mainstream schools. It came to prominence in Europe in the mid-1990s through gender mainstreaming - the assumption that gender is always a crucial variable in policy-making and service delivery - which had itself been mainstreamed thanks to the support of institutions such as the UN and EU.


The concept was used extensively in the EQUAL Community Initiative where it was used primarily to describe a process whereby the results of pilot projects become integrated into ESF and ERDF Structural Fund programmes and into policy both at EU level and Member State level. It was perceived to have two dimensions:

  • vertical where the influence is on policy
  • horizontal where the influence is on practice

EQUAL institutionalised the mainstreaming process by structuring its programme into three phases:

  • Action 1 was intended to last six months and was dedicated to programme design and transnational partnership building
  • Action 2 was normally for two years and was the main implementation phase
  • Action 3 for mainstreaming and dissemination

The three-phase structure of EQUAL along with its development partnerships structure were major drivers of innovation in the programme and appear to have produced good results despite early criticisms that the programme had a slow start.

In the wake of EQUAL, the idea is being incorporated into that of social experimentation, according to which mainstreaming will be greatly facilitated if:

  • the experiment is conducted with some scientific rigour, for instance having a control group
  • implementing authorities 'buy in' beforehand, and undertake to mainstream the innovation if the experiment proves to be a success

ESF learning networks

Mainstreaming was one of the main topics discussed at a co-ordination meeting of the ESF learning networks in Brussels on 24-25 May 2011. A summary of the round table discussions is as follows.

What should be the key elements in any Mainstreaming Plan?

  • Target groups and policy instruments
  • To show added value
  • To guarantee continuity
  • Mainstreaming plans depend upon each partner that they have been identified at policy level.
  • Identification of target audience and of their needs
  • Need to closely monitor the policy makers’ agenda to fit in with relevant and useful key messages for them: Timing is key
  • Engage with stakeholders from the start:
    • Decide what stakeholders want, how to deliver it and most important, when;
    • Keep on asking and informing them;
    • Make it interesting and sell it with evidence that it works.
  • Give all partners specific responsibilities at national as well as European level

How will your LN improve the capacity of regional/national MAs and IBs and also of the Commission to manage the next generation of ESF programmes?

  • In IMPART there was a risk of designing a kind of ‘menu option’ leading to a catalogue of recommendations. The current way they do it now is through an iterative process.
  • In BFSE, the consolidated analysis leads to common messages for all partners, transversal to all issues.
  • GM adopted a ‘product’ oriented approach, using LNs as delivery channels.
  • Distinguish between EU and national levels, as well as between policy recommendations and practical implementation messages.

How does your LN intend to transform its findings and experiences into conclusions and recommenda¬tions for changes in policies and practices?

  • E&I uses match funding circuits as a natural channel, but also develops wider partnership working.
  • IMPART hopes to be lucky and find the right policy maker to talk to.
  • For GM, quality insurance is important, in order to create the conditions for implementing ‘minimum standards’.
  • Establish a ‘duo’ system, involving policy makers and practitioners in all partner countries.
  • Communicate outcomes on a regular and on-going basis.
  • Tailor information according to the audience.
  • Messages must be punchy and succinct - avoid any lengthy documents!
  • Having the right person, in the right place at the right time can make a massive difference.
  • Look for opportunities to mainstream in the wider policy context.
  • Stronger support needed from the European Commission to help the LNs to mainstream and to identify key targets.
  • The LNs need a strong mandate in order to exert influence on policy processes and policy-makers.
  • Involve policy-makers early on.
  • Policy-makers can change but NGOs can be used to help sustain the LN’s messages.

How do ESF MAs or IBs in your network involve those ministries, departments or agencies that have a policy responsibility for the theme/topic of your network?

  • BFSE will try to consolidate “dispersed” knowledge.
  • Others will try to distil national needs/challenges into EU issues (‘meta-mapping’).
  • Pushing for national networks with realistic targets and clear results/products that can attract and involve these bodies.