PRIMO WELFARE / Innovazione Sociale
The European Union and local social innovation
Which is the role of EU in promoting and supporting local socially innovative initiatives?
10 maggio 2018

Much of the literature on social innovation has exclusively dealt with socially innovative practices at the local level through case-based research strategies (Lehtola and Ståle, 2014). Less attention has been paid to the supranational level (Jenson and Harrison, 2013) and to its interaction with local levels of governance. In recent research, however, we have explored the European Union (EU) framework for social innovation, i.e. the role of the EU in promoting and supporting local socially innovative initiatives (Sabato et al. 2017). This research has highlighted how, over the years, the EU has provided a number of resources promoting social innovation, ranging from financial and cognitive resources to networking opportunities and occasions to make those initiatives more visible.

We hence see the emergence of European, multilevel governance (MLG) systems for social innovation. On the “vertical dimension” of these systems, a number of governance levels are involved in socially innovative initiatives, including the EU, national and local levels. On the “horizontal dimension” of MLG, an array of actors is involved, ranging from public authorities over social entrepreneurs to civil society organisations.

Against this backdrop, in this article we aim at providing a short answer to four key questions:

  • how EU resources for social innovation have been used at the local level and what has been the role played by the various kinds of actors (public/private/non-for profit) in these EU-supported socially innovative initiatives?
  • what is the ‘mechanism’ interlinking the different levels of governance and, in particular, allowing the EU to exert an influence on the local level (if any)?
  • what are the main limitations/shortcomings encountered by local actors in accessing/using EU resources?
  • what are the implications of the usages of EU resources for social innovation in terms of welfare state reforms?

In doing so, we rely on eleven case studies on local socially innovative initiatives conducted in the framework of the FP7 project ‘Poverty Reduction in Europe: Social Policy and Innovation’ (ImPRovE) (Sabato and Verschraegen, 2016). These case studies concerned EU-supported socially innovative initiatives implemented at the local level in five countries belonging to four different welfare regimes (Austria, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, and the UK) and in three policy areas: Roma inclusion (notably, education), homelessness (notably “housing first” programmes) and labour market activation.

What are the main results of our analysis? We firstly looked at the type of EU resources used by local actors. In most cases, financial (nine cases) and cognitive (eight cases) resources were used by the promoters of the initiatives. Networking and visibility resources have been slightly less used, both concerning five initiatives. The whole range of available resources (from financial ones to visibility) was used only in four initiatives.

We also analysed at what stage of the socially innovative initiative EU resources have been used, and to what extent the existence of these projects is linked to the availability of EU resources. As for the former aspect, we found that EU cognitive resources were primarily used to design the initiative. This was the case for two projects on housing first: “Tutti a casa”, a project implemented in Bologna, and one experimenting with housing first in the city of Vienna. In these cases, local players re-used knowledge produced in the EU context (or through EU-funded activities) in designing their own initiatives. In five cases, EU financial resources were used to launch the projects and implement them in their early stages: once the co-funding period expired, these projects continued, relying on other funding sources. In four cases, EU co-funded projects are still on-going and EU resources are being used to implement the initiatives, covering the costs of activities carried out and staff costs, funding project evaluations, dissemination activities or participation in networking/information exchanges. Interestingly enough, none of the initiatives analysed used EU resources to ‘up-scale’ the projects as to reach a broader public or different territorial levels. This is remarkable because the EU itself pays much attention to this aspect.

Importantly, in nine out of eleven initiatives, those responsible for implementing the projects deemed it ‘unlikely’ that the projects would have gone ahead if EU funds had been not available. This is for two reasons. First, EU resources helped local players to overcome difficulties in accessing sufficient domestic funds to implement the project. Second, in some cases, EU resources allowed domestic players to introduce new policy frameworks challenging existing policy approaches or to experiment with new policy instruments within established policy approaches. For instance, two initiatives implemented in Austria (Thara) and Sweden (Romane Buca) introduced new approaches targeted to the inclusion of specific groups (Roma). In both cases, the project approach was at odds with the mainstream approach in these countries, which was based on the rejection of affirmative actions vis-à-vis ethnic minorities. Conversely, in cases related to labour market activation, EU resources were used to experiment with new instruments and methods within established policy frameworks (i.e., social investment and labour market activation) so as to convince decision-makers of their effectiveness. Importantly, most of the initiatives whose existence was related to the availability of EU funds have been “institutionalised”, i.e, after the expiration of the EU co-funded period, they have been mainstreamed into public policies and funded by public authorities or by relying on private funding. In other words, in the cases above, local players acted strategically using EU resources to promote their preferred policy options. In the literature on “Europeanisation” this mechanism linking the EU and local levels of MLG systems has been called the “leverage effect”.

All the initiatives considered in the research were promoted by partnership involving public authorities, private or non-for profit players, and, in most cases, this was an element of innovativeness of the initiative. In contrast to what is claimed by some literature on social entrepreneurship, the important role of private/non-for-profit actors within social innovation does not entail a minor role for public actors. Public actors (mainly bureaucrats) usually act as ‘policy entrepreneurs’, pushing for introducing the innovative initiative (thus using EU resources as a “leverage”).

Furthermore, when searching for support in accessing/using EU resources, private or civil society actors very often look at public actors, who can support them in, using and managing EU funds. Because the use of EU funding requires significant administrative capacity and expertise, small organisations that do not possess the required expertise or do not have enough financial resources to resort to private consultancy often decide not to go through the cumbersome process of applying for EU funding. As support offered by public bodies is in short supply and not always effective, small organisations’ ability to exploit EU resources is very limited which contributes to a “frozen” situation where big and well-established organisations – which have developed expertise and experience in dealing with EU resources – enjoy a sort of incumbents’ advantage.

To conclude, what is the capacity of EU-funded social innovations to affect welfare systems? The answer differs according to the territorial level one takes into account. As already shown by their rather high degree of “institutionalisation” (after expiration of the EU cofounded period), the socially innovative initiatives we had studied have indeed affected local social policies. On the other hand, however, “up-scaling” is limited: they remain local initiatives and are not mainstreamed into national welfare systems. This finding strongly contrasts with the objectives of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion which conceives of social policy innovation as a way to test the effectiveness of social policy reforms on a small scale, that is, before up-scaling them in national welfare systems.

Jenson J. and D. Harrison (2013). Social Innovation Research in the European Union. Approaches, Findings and Future Directions. Policy Review. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Lehtola V. and P. Ståhle (2014). Societal Innovation at the Interface of the State and Civil Society. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 27 (2), pp. 152–174.
Sabato S., B. Vanhercke and G. Verschraegen (2017). Connecting entrepreneurship with policy experimentation? The EU framework for social innovation. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 30 (2), pp. 147-167.
Sabato S. and G. Verschraegen (2016). The usage of EU resources in local social innovation. ImPRovE Working Paper No. 16/03, Antwerp: Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy – University of Antwerp, February 2016.


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