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Social Experimentation in Europe

Social experimentations are arousing growing interest among public decisionmakers, both in member states and at the European level. Explicit references to experimentation are made in recent EU decisions in the fields of the renewed Social Agenda, the open method of coordination as applied to social policy and the programming process of the European Social Fund (ESF), and in the conclusions of the informal meeting of ministers responsible for the fight against poverty and social exclusion.

This was not always the case. The United States, conversely, has a long-standing tradition – around four decades – and varied practical experience of randomised social experimentation, as applied to work integration, education, training, housing and social assistance. In the last ten years this technique has spread across the American continent (Canada, Mexico and others). It has also been used by several European countries (the UK, Norway and others) and encouraged by international organisations such as the World Bank, which has helped its growing popularity in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Social experimentation is often associated with social innovation and the search for ways to revitalise policy by making it more efficient, more effective and better adapted to new social needs. To this extent, they represent the latest stage of a long tradition of supporting and promoting innovation in the area of cohesion policy in general and the ESF in particular. Between 2000 and 2006 and with the help of the Community initiative programme EQUAL, the ESF developed a corpus of analyses and recommendations which – complementing other exchanges of best practice at regional and local levels, and cooperation between national administrations – offers a solid basis for launching new experimentation.

It must however be acknowledged that the technique of experimentation as applied to the social field is not yet well explored in all 27 EU countries. In spring 2008 the French presidency of the EU sought the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee, asking: “How can social experimentation contribute to the formulation of policy to promote social inclusion?”

In practice, social experimentation raises questions over implementation and follow-up. It is the subject of debate between social actors, who may question its validity and added value. The case still needs to be made that this instrument is relevant in different national and regional socio-economic contexts, and therefore able to overcome the obstacle of transferability. And a place still needs to be made for it in the existing regulatory and financial frameworks, at national and EU levels.

This study tries to summarise the current state of knowledge and practice, with a view to shedding light on the subjects of debate at the Grenoble Forum on 21-22 November 2008.

14 Jun 2011