There is a rich literature on policy learning, policy transfer and policy change, and youth transition regimes (Hall 1993; Dolowitz and Marsh 2000; Walther and Pohl 2005). However, there is no systematic comparative analysis of the possibilities for, and the barriers to, policy learning and transfer that focuses specifically on the problems related to youth unemployment, and how such learning and transfer works at various levels of interaction for local, regional, national and supranational stakeholders in the EU.
The salience of youth employment problems in many European countries has brought the need to develop effective measures of school-to-work (STW) transitions to the top of the EU agenda. It has generated EU initiatives for integrated policies addressing youth at risk and has accelerated mutual learning, policy transfer and experimentation within and across countries.
But how do European countries compare in terms of the institutional structures and processes that facilitate or hinder policy learning and innovation with respect to effective measures for sustained STW transitions?
How we carried out the research
We selected nine countries for our study on the basis of three criteria: to have joined the EU at different stages of enlargement (including Turkey as an accession country); to span the entire spectrum of STW and welfare regimes; and to represent cases of varying scale and severity of the youth problem.
Our analysis is based on information obtained through in-depth, semi-structured interviews that were carried out in the first half of 2015 in each of the countries studied with key stakeholders, academics and researchers. A template with a common set of questions (adapted for each country) was used as a guide. The available literature on each country was also scrutinised with the aim of unravelling the major planks of academic and public debate on facilitators or constraints of policy innovation.
Key findings: Diffusion and inertia
We found a significant distinction between countries with policy machineries that are conducive to coordinated sharing and diffusion of information and experience between different levels of administration and joint stakeholders’ bodies, and those exhibiting considerable inertia as regards policy learning and experimentation.
Local/regional administrations and agencies are more likely to exchange knowledge on policy processes and tools between themselves and also to get involved in cross-country mutual policy learning.
Policy governance supporting regional and local partnerships and policy entrepreneurs
Experimentation with proactive youth employment measures, more importantly, is facilitated by a mode of policy governance that supports (regional/local) partnerships and networks of public services, professional bodies and education/training providers, employers, youth associations and other stakeholders. We found that policy entrepreneurs play a significant role in promoting policy learning and transfer.
Our analysis provides evidence of a clustering of the countries studied into two groups. Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK and, to some extent, France stand out as rather ‘proactive’ countries, though to varying extents and through different mechanisms. Belgium, Greece, Spain, Slovakia and Turkey show a higher inclination to path dependency or inertia.
However, in France and the UK, innovative policies do not seem to yield significant outcomes in dealing with the youth problem. This applies both to the efficiency dimension (given the fact that youth unemployment remains high in France), but most notably to the equity dimension, given that the NEETs rate and the risk of poverty and social exclusion among the young are considerable in both countries and gender disparities persist.
Conclusions: Multi-level governance structures and interactions
Our findings emphasise the importance of (a) the role played by overall governance structures in the dynamics of policy change and innovation, and (b) the major institutional aspects and interactions facilitating or hindering policy innovation.
Most of the countries studied exhibit a multi-level governance structure: regional/local administrations have competences over certain elements of policy relevant to youth transitions, while central government institutions play a significant role in strategic policy decisions and in the overall regulatory framework. However, the degree of administrative decentralisation cannot by itself explain the differences in policy experimentation and innovation among the countries studied.
Within the first group of countries, Denmark exemplifies systematic interaction and feedback among all levels of governance from the bottom upwards and vice versa, which is conducive to negotiated and evidence-informed innovation. In the Dutch case, multi-level plans to tackle youth unemployment and facilitate transitions are of significant importance in enhancing innovation and learning. In the more centralised UK, market mechanisms, competition and choice are seen as key in driving policy innovation but, at the same time, the marketised logic of competition can act as an obstacle to sharing of best practice among multiple public and private providers.
In the second group of countries, piloting, programme evaluation and impact assessment are performed less systematically. It is also difficult to ascertain whether the acquired evidence feeds into policy design (e.g., in Belgium). In France, state dirigisme with policy centralisation implies that most innovations focus on an extensive array of market and non-market youth contracts.
Barriers to policy learning and innovation: Fragmentation
In all these countries, barriers to policy learning and innovation stem from fragmentation and overlapping of policy competences in the fields of education, training and employment for youth.
Policy innovation and knowledge diffusion are limited by highly centralised administration structures (Greece, Turkey) or excessive bureaucratisation (Greece). Coerced transfer has been the case in Greece under the bailout deals, while political interests overrule policy decisions to different extents in Turkey, Slovakia, Greece and Spain. Nonetheless, Slovakia and a number of regions in Spain stand out as examples of innovative initiatives.
Path shift in VET structures
Further, in Spain, Greece and Slovakia, a path shift is under way in VET structures via an attempt to strengthen the dual system and raise its public visibility and attractiveness for young people. Local entrepreneurs, drawing experience from across Europe, are playing a significant role in instigating reform.
Soft forms of learning
As for inter-linkages between national institutional contexts and international actors, soft forms of learning across countries and through supranational channels of knowledge transfer/adaptation are of relevance in all national cases. However, the influence is more decisive in initiating policy change in the second group of countries, particularly given that policy patterns of some Northwestern European countries are often adopted (and diffused) by EU institutions as ‘best practices’.
Finally, a general trend at the macro level is pointed out in most of the country reports. Structural factors are tending to make STW transitions lengthier and more uncertain. At the same time, the progressive polarisation of the labour market, resulting in fewer intermediate jobs, significantly diminishes opportunities for progression beyond entry level for many young people.