Governing Activation in Europe: Diverse Responses to Common Challenges?

Research question/goal: 

Since the mid-1990s, European welfare states have seen a deliberate shift from passive to active and activating labour-market measures. In a first step, this project systematically compared and contrasted EU member states’ reform agendas, policy choices (instruments), and most importantly, changes in the governance of policy (organization of Public Employment Services, PES) and its implementation. Special attention was placed on the impact of the global financial crisis on government agendas and the associated choices regarding policy and its governance. In a second, partially overlapping step, this project offered an explanation of why EU member states continue to differ in some, yet converge in other areas.

In a series of papers, it has been shown (a) that the activation agenda not only continued to thrive, but even intensified during the crisis; (b) that many member states face difficulties matching the agenda goals with appropriate funding, which in practice then often leads to a lopsided emphasis on so-called push rather than social investment instruments; and (c) that PES have re-established themselves as crucial public actors in providing services to jobseekers and benefit recipients. Quite strikingly, while many PES increasingly rely on modern management techniques and e-based services – often due to intensified budget constraints – they do not generally follow a widely anticipated pathway of decentralization, de-corporatization, and privatization. Indeed, there are several examples of recentralization (e.g. Finland, Poland or Spain) and the strengthening of social partner involvement (e.g. Germany or the Netherlands), while Ireland is the outlier, as the social partners no longer play an institutionalized role in the newly remodeled PES. It also could be shown that the reliance on private service providers is – with the main exception of the UK – principally a means to increase capacity rather than replace public involvement.

When explaining these trends of convergence and divergence, it has become clear that actors only partially behave “rationally” in the sense that they have clearly defined preferences, which they seek to materialize in power struggles. Often policy makers and other stakeholders “puzzle” over appropriate means how to achieve various partially competing goals of economic efficiency, employment promotion, and social equity. A more historical, pragmatist-constructivist approach that is sensitive to ideational legacies, institutional path dependency and policy diffusion has turned out to be most helpful in explaining the observed patterns.

Fact sheet

2009 to 2014
Data Sources: 
Archival research, text analyses, expert surveys, interviews
Geographic Space: 
Western Europe



Barcevičius, Egidijus, J. Timo Weishaupt and Jonathan Zeitlin (Eds.) (2014): Assessing the Open Method of Coordination: Institutional Design and National Influence of EU Social Policy Coordination. Basingstoke: Palgrave. [Work and Welfare in Europe] more
Weishaupt, J. Timo (2011): From the Manpower Revolution to the Activation Paradigm: Explaining Institutional Continuity and Change in an Integrating Europe. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. [Changing Welfare States] more