How a small French town reduced unemployment with citizen-led innovation

Dreaming, remembering, scaling and innovating boldly to spread good ideas

Quick facts


Read this if you

  • Wonder where public sector innovation should be initiated –
  • Need a framework for low risk experimentation leading to large scale innovation
  • Need to improve how your community learns by turning into a Complex Adaptive System
  • Want inspiration about different forms of public governance that are designed to foster innovation


Policy making steps


Stephen Boucher
Founder of Dreamocracy

Related ressources


Solving unemployment at a local level

No one can single-handedly solve long-term unemployment. But many minds may have a chance.

Unemployment is a textbook complex issue that governments everywhere have to graple with. It’s a problem that unravels the very fabric of society, leaving millions of citizens less wealthy, less healthy, and more isolated and politically disillusioned.

This case study shows how to tap into a key source of policy learning and the dissemination of policy innovations: ideas outside public administration. It also examines how and when the state should provide a nurturing and structured environment for innovation to flourish.

How they solved it

Small experiments with government support

The public challenge of long-term unemployment found an unexpected solution thanks to a civil society group that observed, remembered, and pushed for a policy experiment. 

Several thousand people were pulled out of protracted unemployment. Among the cities participating in the experiment, 3 out of 10 eradicated long term unemployment; 7 out of 10 reduced it by 50%. 200 similar project exist today, each getting on average 100 people back on the job market.

French public administration developed a new legal framework – and culture – to experiment new policy approaches. This is now a key tool in the public servant’s toolbox: setting up small experiments with controls.

Solutions were cultivated with a balance of decentralization and hierarchy. A decentralized approach offers several advantages: the actors know each other and can interact more easily; errors have lesser consequences; complexity is partially reduced; creativity will be more easily recognized and its promoters rewarded.

When experimenting in the public sector, it is crucial that local teams work not in isolation, but are supported by a determined center with resources to document the experiments, reward and share solutions. In the case of the “zero long-term unemployment territories”, French national authorities provided:

  • the legal framework,
  • resources to monitor, gather and share lessons learnt,
  • and ensured that the core characteristics of the experiment were applied consistently across the country.

Key methods and concepts

Policy learning and dissemination: Policy learning refers to the process by which policymakers and other stakeholders acquire knowledge and experience that can inform the development and implementation of public policies. Ideas and know-how spread across different venues when agents are encouraged to share their knowledge and experience.

Experimentation involves testing new policy interventions in a controlled setting to evaluate their effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.

Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS):
Complex adaptive systems organise interacting and interdependent agents that operate according to simple rules and are able to adapt and evolve over time. These systems can be found in nature, such as ecosystems, and in human society, such as economies, organizations, and even democracies. 

Democracy itself is a complex adaptive system: it involves the interaction of many individuals with varying opinions, beliefs, and interests. In a democratic society, individuals are able to express their views, and the collective decision-making process is often more effective and efficient than decisions made by a single individual or a small group. As individuals interact and share information, new ideas can emerge, and the system can become more intelligent as a result.

Agile governance and orchestrated government:
Different forms of governance place the emphasis for public authorities on nurturing the conditions for social, policy and political innovation. Key features of such approaches include decentralization combined with central services, enabling and rewarding experimentation, and a culture of adaptation.

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