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How is EU employment policy driving social innovation?

The EU has supported social innovation to help meet its goal of getting 75 per cent of people into work. How has it done this, and what can be learnt for future activity in this field?

Key findings 

  • EU-funded social innovations are taking new approaches to tackling employment problems by making links with other social policy issues.
  • Most cases we observed did not fundamentally challenge existing systems. Given the scale of funds such as ESF, it would be possible for the EU to fund innovations with far greater radical potential.
  • The relationship between EU structural funds and the support for social innovations can be more closely aligned. Funds such as the ESF can contribute to “structural inertia” by propping up otherwise failing public employment systems.

Employment is a key priority for the EU, and top-level strategies such as Europe 2020 recognise the role of social innovation in achieving these goals. But in practice, how has the EU supported employment social innovations? And, given responsibility for employment policy sits with member states, what can the EU do to influence activity on the ground?

EU funds are key levers to support the implementation of both strategies and initiatives. Three EU funds in particular have been important in driving social innovation in employment: European Social Fund (ESF), the Youth Employment Initiative, and the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).

We identified five case studies that had been funded through at least one of these funds. These represent a mix of types of innovation and include innovations conceived at transnational, national and regional/local levels.

We found that EU policy has driven new collaborations and models of service delivery, helped shift goals of traditional employment services and helped make services more responsive to users’ needs. We suggest that national level involvement is important in helping innovations to scale, but that this is best combined with flexibility for local testing and adaptation, which creates more buy-in among those delivering services. At the same time, we argue that there has been a relatively narrow focus on labour market integration and that innovations have been more ‘sustaining’ than ‘disruptive’ of public employment systems. 

Policy recommendations 

Our research suggests the EU should:

  • Help public administrations and managing authorities acquire skills to better manage innovation programmes.
  • Establish cross-European institutional guidance and support to help national and regional public managers.
  • Put more resource into expanding networks that seek to forge a stronger link between learning and practice.
  • Increase the support mechanisms available that help multilevel actors design, set up and evaluate social policy experiments.
  • Encourage greater attention on innovations in governance - for example, giving actors new roles and responsibilities, offering different types of funding mechanisms or creating new links between employment and social services - to increase the chance of new approaches getting adopted, and potentially spread more widely. 
  • Combine support for regional initiatives with support for national level initiatives to provide regional actors with policy frameworks for social innovation.
  • Review selection processes and lighten the administrative burden on organisations that receive funding, so that they allow for greater participation from smaller, nimbler organisations that can achieve real outcomes on the ground.

Generate guidance on impact measurement sensitive to the needs of social innovators to enable the development of a robust evidence base but also maintain proportionality, allow flexibility and avoid stifling innovation.


Isaac Stanley, Sophie Reynolds, Madeleine Gabriel, Nabeela Ahmed (The Young Foundation), Dr Sandra Gulyurtlu (The Young Foundation)


Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Head of Inclusive Innovation

Madeleine Gabriel leads international projects that explore how new models of innovation can tackle big social challenges. Her current work includes a study on whether and how the co...

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Isaac Stanley

Isaac Stanley

Isaac Stanley

Researcher, Inclusive Innovation

Isaac is a Researcher in the Inclusive Innovation team at Nesta

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