Employment and capability development: Take the subsidiarity principle seriously

Is Europe ready to radically overhaul its employment and social policies? If so, policy makers might draw inspiration from the CAPRIGHT research project which explores the relationship between labour markets, employment and welfare regimes. The four-year project has produced a bold catalogue of proposals advocating a new definition of full employment based on a politics of ‘work-and-life capability development’. Here, full employment refers to a situation whereby everybody who wants to work is employed, and where an individual is able to achieve those goals and activities he or she values as accomplishment, both within the workplace and in life more generally.

The proposals include framing a set of capability-based fundamental rights, creating special courts to protect these rights and transforming European firms and markets through regulatory reform. For instance, European regulation should establish incentives which push firms to integrate the development of their employees' capabilities as one of their strategy’s major benchmarks. It should go hand in hand with European policies that favour the development of future economic sectors, such as durable and green activities.

Arguing that European employment and social policies have become “abstract and disembodied”, the CAPRIGHT consortium urges European decision makers to bring those policies “back down to earth”. Responsibility for decisions affecting employment should be shifted to the level that is closest to actual economic and social situations and put in the hands of those who are most familiar with the problems at stake. Exactly where that decision-making power should be located depends on the specific circumstances, the consortium notes. In some cases the right level may be the corporation or the industrial sector. In other situations it may be more appropriate to devolve decision-making power and appropriate resources to a particular geographic territory.

In their final policy report, the CAPRIGHT researchers appeal to European authorities to move away from the ‘distant governance’ mode of policy action and evaluation representing the European status quo. By sticking to this mode, the consortium argues, European authorities have removed themselves from “people's urgent needs for social protection and employment”. Failure to adopt a more democratic and situated approach, the researchers say, has contributed to growing hostility toward both Europe and national governments. European policy makers are therefore advised to make situated evaluation of needs an absolute priority.

To illustrate the key differences between these two approaches to evaluating social protection and employment needs, CAPRIGHT produced the following diagram (Figure 1):


Figure 1 - How to conceive policies: Two conceptions of the relationship between public policy and evaluation

Source: CAPRIGHT Policy Report, 20111


The top section of the diagram shows the preferred ‘Capability Approach’, described as a “triangular and reflexive scheme for public action”. The bottom part lays out the more conventional ‘Instrumental Approach’ associated with New Public Management – an approach which the researchers say is counterproductive and must be abandoned.  

According to CAPRIGHT’s final policy report, the Instrumental Approach leads to serious shortcomings not only with respect to quality of life but also in relation to the labour market. For example, agencies dealing with the unemployed – whether they are focusing on social assistance, placement or training – are characterised as fixated on achieving quantitative performance objectives with little or no regard for job quality. With assistance for job seekers viewed as a cost burden, the unemployed are thus pressured to accept whatever job is offered, even if it is far below a person’s true capabilities. Hence, say the researchers, the goal of full employment has been abandoned.

Highly critical of New Public Management practices, CAPRIGHT proposes a more integrated approach that seeks to struggle against ‘inequalities of capabilities’. Daily experience reminds us, for instance, that women with child care responsibilities, disabled people and people from minority backgrounds face more obstacles to securing suitable employment compared with other groups. Instead of public policy pressuring job seekers into poorly paid, insecure short-term employment situations, the researchers suggest that policy be oriented toward assuring each person gets “put in a situation where she has the capability to achieve the goals and projects which she values as personal accomplishment”.

The Instrumental Approach, the consortium asserts, ends up sacrificing important societal goals in order to improve bureaucratic performance indicators and ultimately results in increased precariousness and social exclusion. The Capability Approach, meanwhile, moves away from short-term budgetary management and favours “reallocation of public resources towards a work-and-life capability development for all people” - leading to what the researchers suggest could be new full employment.

Achieving full employment using the Capability Approach is perfectly feasible, the consortium maintains. This would require true commitment by central authorities, expressed through readiness to assign rights of deliberation to intermediate levels, in plants, firms, sectors or territories. These rights would allow all relevant stakeholders (not only employees, but also citizens, suppliers, subcontractors and their representatives) to have a voice over choices impacting employment and people’s capabilities.

Public authorities and firms should bring resources to these levels to enable citizens and employees to have a larger voice relating to economic decisions. CAPRIGHT suggests that the European Union has “more techniques in hand to achieve these goals than one might think”. What is needed to implement this approach is to simply take the “political philosophy of the subsidiarity principle” seriously. The subsidiarity principle is one of the central principles in the EU context, which ensures that political (and, in CAPRIGHT’s view, economic and strategic) decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen.


1 See: http://www.capright.eu/digitalAssets/115826_POLICY_REPORT.pdf

CAPRIGHT - Resources, rights and capabilities; in search of social foundations for Europe (duration: 1/3/2007 – 28/2/2011) was an Integrated Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Community, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://www.capright.eu/

Contact: Professor Robert Salais, robert.salais@ens-cachan.fr; Robert.Salais@cmb.hu-berlin.de