High and persistent unemployment has been a major blot on the economic and social record of most OECD countries since the early 1970s: the OECD average standardised unemployment rate rose from an estimated 3 per cent in 1973 to a peak of 8 per cent in 1993 before falling back to 6.4 per cent in 2000. In response to growing political concerns about the seemingly inexorable rise in unemployment, various policy blueprints were developed in the 1990s to improve labour market performance on a durable basis. Prime examples include the OECD Jobs Strategy launched in 1994 and the EU Employment Guidelines which were launched in 1997 following the Amsterdam summit.
These policy blueprints assign an important role to active labour market policies. But this emphasis begs the obvious question: what is the potential contribution which active labour market policies can make as part of a strategy to combat high and persistent unemployment? In order to answer this question, it is vital to know what works among active policies and for whom. The OECD Secretariat has been working intensively on these questions in recent years and this paper summarises the main results of our work to date.
The structure of the paper is as follows. Section 1 provides some factual background on public spending on labour market policies in OECD countries over the period 1985-2000. The bulk of the paper summarises the main results of on‑going OECD research into the effectiveness of active labour market policies. This review mainly exploits two sources: (i) the recent literature on the evaluation of active labour market programme (Section 2); and (ii) in-depth country reviews and analytical studies which the OECD has conducted over the past decade on the interactions between active and passive labour market policies and the role of the public employment service (Section 3). The final section draws some conclusions.