Netherlands EQUAL National Thematic Network

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The Dutch Thematic Group on Business Creation is unusual in that it is made up mainly of policy makers and experts from different organisations with the presence of representatives from just two EQUAL projects. Together they synthesised the good practices of the 17 EQUAL partnerships to produce a series of key messages, centred around five main issues:

  • the transition from welfare benefit,
  • entrepreneurship for specific target groups and sectors,
  • entrepreneurship in small rural settlements,
  • access to credit, and
  • building an entrepreneurial culture, particularly through the education system.

With this information they went further than many countries in organising joint13 mainstreaming action. This involved a combination of high profile national events, individual discussions and working dinners with influential policy makers to press forward their case. As a result, information from the NTG is being used in the modification of certain national policies. For example, EQUAL’s work with unemployed people provided a far greater insight into the barriers faced by people who want to set up a business while on unemployment benefit. The Ministry of Social Affairs has been able to use this information in proposals to amend the law on unemployment benefits. The aim is to make starting up a business an equal possibility in relation to reintegration to employment. Following one of their executive dinners on “Entrepreneurship in education”, the Scottish partners of one of the EQUAL projects was invited to the Netherlands to explain their experiences in bringing entrepreneurship into primary schools. Entrepreneurship education in primary schools is not as developed in the Netherlands and the Ministry of Education is pursuing the idea of a conference to explore the possibility of adopting some of the successful practices tested in Scotland.

Finally, EQUAL has been successful in involving senior politicians from both the economic and the employment ministries. State Secretary Van Gennip of the Ministry of Economic Affairs now sees the 17 EQUAL projects as initiatives which can help “give start-ups a greater chance of success – whether the starter is unemployed or comes from another situation”. State Secretary Van Hoof of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment agrees and congratulates the National Thematic Network with their achievement to bring so many people together who are interested in the results of the EQUAL projects. ”This conference adds to greater knowledge about the best practices. Everybody here is already helping us to mainstream the results.”


At just under 4%, unemployment in the Netherlands is half the average for the EU 15 and one of the lowest in Europe. This has led the Dutch government to focus on “activation” strategies to increase the participation of certain groups of workers in the labour market. There are ambitious targets to increase the employment rate of women by over 10 points between 2003 and 2010 and to boost that of ethnic minorities by seven points to reach 54% in 2005 (14). Small and medium sized firms play an important part in this process. New business start-ups generated 100.000 jobs in the Netherlands in 2003 - nearly half all the jobs created in the economy that year (15). This is why the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs launched a new 13 As opposed to providing a platform for discussing the mainstreaming activities of individual partnerships. 14

The targets are to increase the employment rates of women from 54,7% in 2003 to 65% in 2010, that of ethnic minorities from 48,2% in 2003 to 54% in 2005 and that of older workers from 38,6% to 40% in 2007. These objectives are based on Dutch definitions which are more conservative than Eurostat. 15 New business start-ups accounted for 44% of the total number of jobs created in that year. There’s also a connection between age and growth of companies. Young companies are more likely to grow fast in terms of employment and turn over.

Enterprise dynamics and employment, period 1987-2004, EIM, Zoetermeer, March 2005. Success stories 11 Success stories of National Thematic Networks in Business creation policy16 called Action for Entrepreneurs with 43 specific measures aimed at removing the 25 obstacles experienced as most oppressive by entrepreneurs in the start-up, growth and transfer stages of running a business. This provides the policy framework for many of the solutions piloted by EQUAL. The single most important barrier mentioned by entrepreneurs themselves is the administrative burden. The cabinet aims to reduce this by a quarter in the current legislative period. EQUAL has less to say in this area.

The Minister of Education and the State Secretary for Economic Affairs have also submitted an action plan on one of EQUAL’s main priorities - entrepreneurship and education. The plan focuses on developing (internationally recognised) entrepreneurial skills in education programs (the curriculum for primary and secondary school students and universities). It also proposes the creation of a series of training centres for start-ups. Several EQUAL projects are active in this area. The Ministry of Economic Affairs is also responsible for entrepreneurship among particular target groups like women and ethnic minorities. So its membership of the EQUAL thematic group on entrepreneurship opens up an important channel for feeding the messages of the EQUAL partnerships into policy.


The Dutch Thematic Group on Entrepreneurship was launched in the Spring of 2003 with the specific aims of analysing the results of the EQUAL projects, selecting successful outcomes and methods and formulating recommendations for broader implementation. The Network was chaired by an external chair with expertise in the field of entrepreneurship with participation from the ministries of Economic Affairs, VNO/NCW (employers organisation), EIM (research institute in the field of entrepreneurship) the chambers of commerce, independent experts, two representatives from two EQUAL projects and a member from the National Support Structure (NSS). The NSS has produced its own database of EQUAL projects ( In addition to the expertise of its own members, an external expert was contracted to work with the thematic group in September 2005. The first (day long) general meeting of the NTN and all 17 EQUAL projects took place in the Spring of 2003. This provided an opportunity for starting to develop a “ shared picture” of each project.17 The network then put a lot of energy into the exchanges required for improving this joint knowledge.

In June 2003 a full exchange of all projects was organised in Utrecht. This was followed up in November of the same year by a meeting to agree on a set of indicators of both good practice and common pitfalls. The NTN met on average every 2 months to prepare activities. To deal with the diversity of situations, the NTN developed indicators for four different types of project - according to whether they were primarily trying to get people to shift from the “hammock” of welfare benefits or directly onto the “trampoline” of business creation. The indicators were designed to measure the qualitative and quantitative results for the target groups18, elements of innovation, the degree of transfer and transferability, common problems and pitfalls, and the extent to which the change was sustainable without EQUAL funding. The indicators were tested during three meetings of the network and all the EQUAL projects early in 2004 (10th February, 9th and 30th March 2004). At these meetings each project provided a brief presentation followed by joint discussion around three questions: what concrete output results have been achieved? What are the innovative aspects? What mainstreaming activity has or 16 Sent to the Dutch Parliament in December 2003 17 NTN’s developed and embellished a short questionnaire which allowed partnerships one of two options.

Firstly, they could make short general presentation followed by a longer round of questioning by peers and policy makers. Secondly, they could make presentation of a specific instrument or methodology which was then tried and tested by workshop members 18 The NTN focused on output results instead of input results. Success stories 12 Success stories of National Thematic Networks in Business creation could be envisaged? The indicators were used to score the main outputs and messages in terms of their potential for mainstreaming. The NTN found that the outputs and methods developed by the EQUAL partnerships could be grouped into five main categories with relevance for policy makers. The first was, the transition from welfare benefits to self employment, where EQUAL projects provided useful lessons about how to help welfare managers to recognise and encourage potential entrepreneurs, how to improve the integration between different services and target them of specific phases of setting up a business and how to empower and build the capacity of disadvantaged groups.

The second category of mainstreamable results involved a series of approaches and methods tested by EQUAL for increasing entrepreneurship in particular sectors and activities. These often involved new technology but were also related to the growth of care services as a result of the aging of the population and the professionalisation of child care. There were also good result in other growth sectors such as culture and art or even certain niche markets within declining sectors. EQUAL partnerships were also able to develop a series of methods for encouraging entrepreneurship which also improved the quality of life in small rural settlements (the third category). Fourthly, there is a block of recommendations and outputs concerned with improving the access to finance for disadvantaged groups. As in other Member States, EQUAL projects show that there is an unmet need for certain financial instruments such as microfinance but that this must be backed up with adequate investment in financial capacity building (business planning, etc) and support for improving the relationships with mainstream banks. Public-private partnerships play an important role here. Some DPs also showed that there was scope for involving informal private investors. Finally, Dutch DPs have a number of tools and methods to offer policy makers in the field of using mentors to build a more entrepreneurial culture in schools. For example, the partnership ‘Maatschappelijk ondernemen’ (social entrepreneurship) have tested a system involving mentors from businesses working directly with students in vocational training. The results have been positive in terms of reducing drop-outs attracting students into entrepreneurship. Their approach is now being used in several cities in cooperation with different companies.

The Thematic Group also identified a series of weaknesses in the activities of the partnerships which will be very important for the next round in most Member States. These include poor evidence of impact and cost-effectiveness and insufficient information sharing and networking, particularly in the early stages. The outputs and lessons of all the partnerships have been summarised in a report produced aimed at both policy makers and executors at local, regional and national level. Further details can be found in a thematic section of the Website organised into the clusters mentioned above so as to improve retrieval by policy makers. At the end of 2004 the NTN produced a strategy for mainstreaming the results mentioned above. Some results were clearly only susceptible for horizontal transfer. When it came to vertical mainstreaming they identified the main policy making players as being: the ministry of Social affairs and employment (SZW), the ministry of Education, culture and science (OCW), the ministry of economic affairs (EZ). Policy makers of the departments of Economic affairs and Social affairs and employment were already members of the NTN, so the contacts with the key players for mainstreaming in these departments were easily made. Also the contacts with OCW were easily made, because of the NTN-approach of ‘sharing information and knowledge’.


The NTN chose three main channels for convincing policy makers of the importance of their results. Success stories 13 Success stories of National Thematic Networks in Business creation The first was to organise a high profile mainstreaming conference on the 21s t March 2005, called evocatively “shoot with hail” - aimed at a broad public of policy makers and executors. The aim was to let ‘the world’ know that there were interesting lessons to be learned when it comes to stimulating entrepreneurship. Both State Secretary Mrs. Van Gennip (Economic affairs) and State Secretary Mr. Van Hoof (Social affairs and employment) made speeches to an audience which included policy makers from local, regional and national level.

The second was to organise a series of four informal thematic dinners, once again evocatively called “shoot with sharpness” – this time with the aim of talking about specific opportunities or barriers in more detail with a small group of key decision makers. The dinners are being held between March and the second half of 2006 and deal with subjects such as the transition from welfare and unemployment benefits into entrepreneurship, the role of entrepreneurship in education and social economy and Social entrepreneurship. The executive dinners involve a maximum of 15 people - key players in policy at ministries and other decision makers from public institutions as well as people from EQUAL projects who can explain more about their experiences. External practitioners were also invited. For instance the director of a primary school was invited to the dinner about entrepreneurship in education. So the company at the table was of great diversity, which made the conversation inspirational and energetic. For example, this director explained the cultural shift required for opening up entrepreneurship in the following terms: “First think: ‘what do I want’, then: ‘can I do it’, and at last ‘am I allowed to do it’. In this order. Adults have the tendency to think the other way around, but that is not an attitude that will bring an entrepreneur very far. Culture change starts here!”

At another dinner, participants recommend that “entrepreneurship should be a normal option to get out of benefits, a part of the whole palet of reintegration instruments.” Finally, the executive dinners were followed up with two individual meetings between the chairman of the NTN and State Secretary Van Gennip, of the ministry of Economic affairs and State Secretary Van Hoof of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. This dealt with the activities of the NTG and specific points of interest in relation to their policy field. It has allowed them to use EQUAL to inform certain legislative changes.

Contacts and references

Managing Authority: Elsa Vruggink, Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment - mailto://
National Support Structure: Ard Terpstra, Agentschap SZW - mailto://
National Thematic Group: Thelma Dorsman, Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment - mailto://
EQUAL website:
Project information:
Success stories: 14 Success stories of National Thematic Networks in Business creation