Social economy national networks

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Social economy national networks - successfully creating systemic change

Success stories from 9 countries

This article introduces stories of successful thematic networking on the social economy from nine countries, during the EQUAL programme:

For the networks in the Business Creation theme, see EQUAL National Thematic Networks

Why national networking?

National Thematic Networks (NTNs) were an important feature of the architecture of EQUAL, the programme that, with its 3 billion euro budget, has given the greatest push forward in recent years for the social economy and other forms of inclusive entrepreneurship.

The 'NTNs' allowed issues to be debated, opinions sounded out, and feedback given between the Member State governments, the development partnerships (DPs) that are working on a given theme, and other important stakeholders. They also provided a platform for collaboration between partnerships working on the same topic, and often led to joint publications, lobbying efforts and events. In EQUAL’s first round, seven countries created a national network in the social economy: Austria, Germany, Greece, Finland, France, Portugal, Sweden and the UK (Great Britain). In the second round, Poland did likewise.

The typical format was that they bring together all the DPs in the theme, though some differed from this arrangement by including external stakeholders such as representatives of different ministries and academic experts. They were normally chaired by a representative of the EQUAL National Support Structure or Managing Authority. Most set their own meeting schedules, and often rotated around different members’ bases. Others met at a central location in parallel with national networks on other themes.

In 2008, the various networks have met different fates - apart from mainstreaming the contribution of the social economy to public policy, some networks such as the Swedish one profiled below, are continuing under the ESF. Others, such as the German and Austrian ones, have faded. Whetever their futures may be, EQUAL's national thematic networks represented an innovative approach to creating durable policy change, and have many useful lessons to offer.

Lessons learnt

Funding innovation can achieve results: The Greek case shows the valuable role EQUAL resources can play a useful role in kick-starting an innovation which has been held up for lack of resources. Successful use can also be made of other EU programmes and tools for disseminating new policy developments, such as the peer review programmes in employment and social inclusion policies, to mainstream the lessons of EQUAL. However this can be a slow process if there is no national impulsion.

Plan well: The Greek case shows the value of thorough project planning – broad inclusive dialogue can easily get stuck going round in circles. One it has set the agenda for action it is crucial to lay down an action plan with clear tasks and responsibilities.

Delegate: It also shows the value of delegation. “The DPs know more about the subject matter than the ministry does,” says Vassiliki Staikou, ”so it makes most sense to empower them to do the work.”

Budget adequately: Fourthly, the Greek system set aside a guaranteed budget for the NTN’s work – 10% of each DP’s budget was allocated to ‘action 3’ (mainstreaming) and, of this, 3% went to the NTG while the remaining 7% was used by the DPs individually. The Austrian case also shows the value of setting aside a budget at an early stage.

Don’t undervalue public relations: The experience of the Austrian network shows that a lot of the work that has to be done to change things is down to public relations.

Be realistic: However Austria’s experience also shows that political circumstances can change unpredictably, demanding flexibility and a fallback strategy.

Limit your objectives: The Swedish case is an example of a network that has given itself a clear task, to promote a specific part of the social economy, the work integration social enterprise – rather than the whole spectrum. This makes the job more achievable

Inclusiveness brings credibility: The inclusive nature of Sweden’s network, which brings together practitioners, beneficiaries, civil servants, academics and MPs, gives it a high level of credibility, so that government listens to its opinions on social and labour market issues.

Get an MP on board: Finally, the Swedish network found that having a Member of Parliament as Chair of the network (and an opposition MP as Vice-Chair) opens doors and speeds policy impact.