Perspectives on Youth Employment in Europe (n. 6)

Best practices in youth employment promotion
“Best practices” are the Holy Grail of public policies and international cooperation. Policy-makers, practitioners, public institutions and international organizations are eager to dig out recipes for success in pursuing their policy or professional objectives. They are keen to invest in upscaling good practices that have performed well at a small scale or to transfer across regions or countries models of intervention which have arguably worked well in a certain setting. So the grey literature produced by international organisations and public institutions is full of compilations of “best” or “good” practices produced by consultants or sometimes practitioners themselves…far too often without the required independence, systematicity and objectivity of analysis. The concept is ripe for banalisation, and best practices repertories are often a collection of descriptions of actual projects or practices produced by their very implementers. As a consequence, far too often good practices end up being “whatever my organisation does” or, in the most honest cases, “what works better in my portfolio of projects”.

The field of youth employment promotion in Europe is not an exception. A quick internet search will lead you to a number of such compilations by public employment services, non-governmental organisations active in the field of employment promotion or international organisations, and to a lesser extent by researchers. To cite a few of the recent ones:

YOUTH EMPLOYMENT INITIATIVES (2018): Guide of Good Practices in the Field of Youth Unemployment
European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network (2017), Investing in our future: What work(s) for young Roma? Top 10 Best Practices of Roma Youth employment
Harjo, Minna, Merit Tatar, Dragomir Draganov and Maria Jeliazkova (2018),A Review of Good youth Employment Practices in 19 EU Countries,EXCEPT Working Paper No. 17
Ministère du Travail, de l’Emploi et de l’insertion, Banque des bonnes pratiques, a French government compilation of good practices in this field.
The list could be extended to other continents or to a global approach:
Center for Human Services Research University at Albany (2017), Best Practices to Enhance the Employability of Opportunity Youth: A Synthesis of the Available Literature
APEC Human Resources Development working Group (2018), Best Practices of Youth Employment Policies in Selected APEC Economies
ILO Youth Employment Programme (2012), Youth Employment – Good Practices, International Labour Organization
Solutions for Youth Employment, World Bank (2017), New and Promising Approaches in Youth Employment Programs: The S4YE Impact Portfolio
These exercises are no doubt a source of learning and ideas for youth employment practitioners, as knowing what others do is crucial in any initiative in the field of public policy. But a caveat is necessary: they tend to be biased and focus on what has been done, not on outcomes or impact, even less on efficiency, and they tend to neglect the failures or shortcomings of implemented projects. In the field of public policy, “Best practice” is often more of a communication concept that an operational or mutual learning concept. And compilations of “bad practices” explaining the reasons for the failure of many youth employment projects would be as useful for practitioners, but you will have difficulty in finding any.

An oxymoron

As a matter of fact, the very concept of “best practices” is an oxymoron: as the context evolves and organisations and practitioners progress along the learning curve, best practices of the past become obsolete and are replaced by new standards. And in trying to identify good practices, it is crucial to take into account that they are most often context-bound, i.e., that what works in a specific institutional, economic or cultural context does not necessarily work in a different context. To this extent, it seems more appropriate to talk about “promising” or “inspiring” practices, or even more precisely about “evidence-based” practices.

The concept of “Best Practices” was first developed in the field of organisational research and management in the early 20thcentury, notably by F.W Taylor, who endeavoured to find “one best way” of organising the production process in industrial manufacturing (the basis for Fordism). More recently, as theis approach has spread to many other sectors, best practices have been defined as “those practices that have been shown to produce superior results; selected by a systemic process; and judged as exemplary, good or successfully demonstrated”, in the words of Robert Camp (Honorary life-time President of the Global Benchmarking Network). Benchmarking can thus be defined as a systemic process used for identifying and implementing best or better practices.

Robert Camp also referred succinctly to the main difficulties of incorporating best practices through the process by learning from them:

Having sufficient knowledge of your own systems and processes to be able to compare them against others;
Knowing where to find good practices;
Knowing whether a particular practice is suitable for your situation;
Adapting the practice to your organisation;
Finding the time and other resources for the above.
In any case, it is clear that benchmarking and best practices identification is not a straight-forward approach which can limit itself to taking “pret-à-porter” solutions and transferring them to our field. In their 2011 article on best practices, Osburn, Caruso and Wolfensberger[1] concluded that their “usage should be more judicious, if not curtailed altogether”.

Systematic process

Without going so far, it can be argued that the key for making the “best practices approach” useful is indeed a “systematic” process of comparison and identification of those practices. Such a systematic process should at the very least follow the following stages:

Define criteria for success, e., what are the sufficient and necessary conditions for identifying a good practice (quantitative results, satisfaction of beneficiaries, unit cost…..). This commonly understood definition of good practice can relate to results (effectiveness), but also to process (innovative approaches regarding actors involved, target population, operating approach, efficiency…) or even to long-term impact. Without such criteria, the exercise will be void and meaningless.
Independent assessment, e., an objective analysis of a set of practices against those criteria on the basis of a detailed examination of enabling factors and obstacles. This can only be done by independent experts (ideally a small team) with good knowledge of the practice and the context, not by the practitioners implementing the practices themselves. The five classical dimensions of project evaluation are a useful reference framework for this assessment: Relevance (to the needs of target population); Effectiveness (in reaching the stated objectives); Efficiency (in the use of resources); Sustainability (over time) and Impact (change in structural factors).
Comparative analysis, what is commonly known as benchmarking, proceeding to a systematic comparative analysis of practices pursuing similar objectives across countries, regions or even sectors. This comparative analysis should take into consideration the contextual factors and success factors affecting each of the analysed practices (contextual analysis) and in the best cases might be used to rank the practices considered in terms of performance.
Defining conditions for upscaling or transferring practices. On the basis of the former contextual analysis, a case-by-case qualitative study should provide insight into the factors and conditions making it possible (or not) to upscale each of the identified good practices or to transfer them to other contexts.
The Youth Employment Fund, with its 25 transnational projects funded since 2017 for a total of approximately €45 million, seems to be a natural setting for applying such a systematic best practice approach. The 25 projects involving 184 project partners in 25 countries adopt many different approaches on youth employment promotion, and a few of them are even focused on knowledge production and cross-country learning. Another 6 or 7 projects for a total of €11.5 will be selected in early 2021 precisely in the fields of “innovation and exploration, transfer of know-how and good practice, analysis and research”[2]. This is no doubt an ideal environment for a collective exercise of evidence-gathering and analysis, leading to some conclusions on what works and what does not work in the field of youth employment promotion in different contexts, i.e., for a good practice analysis.

Iván Martín
Our Spanish Youth Employment Expert

[1]Osburn, Joe, Guy Caruso and Wolf Wolfensberger (2011), “The Concept of “Best Practice”: A Brief Overview of Its Meanings, Scope, Usage, and Shortcomings”, International Journal of Disability Development and Education,