The Open Method Of Coordination Education Essay

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The Open Method of Coordination was introduced at the Lisbon European Council meeting in 2000, and is described as a new policy instrument composed of four core components. Firstly, acting in concert, both the Member States and European institutions set fixed guidelines for the EU. Secondly, there are quantitative and qualitative indicators and benchmarks. Thirdly, guidelines are transferred into domestic policies and policy-objectives, and finally, also included in this new policy instrument are mutual learning processes such as benchmarking, monitoring and peer review are present (see Eberlein and Kerwer 2004:123).

The European Employment Strategy (EES), often referred to by some academics as "the mother of the OMC" (Smismans 2004:2), was established in 1997 just three years before the OMC was born. The EES laid introduced employment issues as a collective European problem and from then on, it has become the groundwork for the EU role in the coordination of its Member States' employment policies (Watt 2004:118). According to a textual analysis of the EES, employment policy in the EU is a "mobilization of human resources" (Zängle 2004:11) and implementation of active labour market policies (ALMPs), instead of preventing unemployment. One of the most crucial component and strengths of the OMC and the EES is the possibility it presents for actors to mutually learn from each other's policy (Goetschy 2004:7). Indeed, "social learning is an intentional attempt to modify the objectives or methods of policy in reaction to previous experience and new information. We can think of policymaking process as therefore consisting of three fundamental variables: the central objectives that guide policy in a given domain, the methods or policy instruments used to achieve those objectives and the specific context of these instruments".

In the context of the OMC and EES, the concept of mutual learning consists of such instruments as benchmarking, periodic monitoring, peer review exercises and evaluation. These concepts are introduced to encourage the identification and transfer of the 'best practices' which are then assumed to lead to new policy ideas, institutional arrangements, policy implementation and formation of collective preferences. By participating in this process, member states are expected to not only improve their national labour market policies but should also endeavour to converge towards the employment policy recommendation recommended at the EU level.

Although, the OMC recognizes national diversity through the development of mutual learning and multi-level governance, however, the foundation for attaining common convergence is also present within common objectives, benchmarking, and evaluation and within policy coordination itself. This is exactly what some academics have described as an inbuilt tension in the OMC (see Goetschy 2004). Specifically, there is a contradiction between the emphasis on the method as a tool giving Member States the freedom to develop at their "own pace", and the important need to navigate the process of policy change in the direction of "convergence towards EU objectives" (Radaelli 2004:14). It is precisely the implication for the mutual learning processes in terms of this contradiction that this paper concerns itself with. In the light of this contradiction, we will attempt to corroborate the assumption which reads: the arguments between the claims of "diversity" and "convergence" epitomized in the OMC and the EES presents both chances and limitations with regards to the process of mutual learning for the Member States.

The theoretical implications of the chances and limitations of Mutual Learning

With the introduction of the OMC in to the EU, Mutual learning as a concept has attained completely new meaning. From this perspective it is not only learning between national governments that counts ("horizontal learning"), but also there is growing features of vertical coordination at EU governance level, and horizontal and vertical learning 'from below' ("bottom-up").

When observed from the national levels, the role of the policy learning processes under the EES, chances and limitations of their implementation can be viewed from different theoretical standpoints. One may begin at the macro-theoretical level deducing and clarifying policy transfers. For example, new institutionalism argues that path dependencies limit learning especially in the light of the variety of institutional frameworks and welfare regimes in Europe (Lodge 2003:18).

One may also begin with the principal-agent and two-level game theories to examine the complex interaction between member states, the civil society and the EU institutions. Büchs (2004) has applied this approach in his analysis concludes that the role of state in this great game is that of an intermediary between the EU level and civil society and that learning processes can be understood by observing this interaction (2004:4). The notion of nationalism can also be used to help describe the reluctance of certain member states to participate in the policy learning processes and the transfer of policies. from this perspective "national pride, reluctance to transfer sovereignty, and the self-esteem of the state are important, actors bargaining both over benchmarking targets, performance measurement, and benchmarking results" (Zängle,2004:10).

Nonetheless, in this paper the chances and limitations of the mutual learning processes will be critically analysed within the purview of the inherent tension between the 'evidence-based policy making' and 'constructive scepticism' approaches. There is no doubt that the vision articulated by the designers of the OMC and the EES consist of both the practical, statistical, direct evidence to expedite learning processes and their national outcomes, qualitative and quantitative indicators to be used in benchmarking and grander goal of achieving convergence. Conversely, respect for the national diversities, recognition of diversities, situations, needs and, the interests of the Member States are also incorporated in this new mode of governance. Both chances and limitations are rooted in this twofold and sometimes even contradictory objective and process.

'Evidence-based policy making'

The 'evidence-based policy making' approach is located within the rationalist school of thought which assumes that policy decisions are made between another course of action on the basis of what works in a different place, and in a practical way. Hence, rather than grounding policy decisions on ideology, they are grounded on the empirical evidence collected elsewhere (Sanderson 2002). indeed "it seems to be rational common sense to see policy as a purposive course of action in pursuit of objectives built upon careful assessment of alternative ways of achieving such objectives and effective implementation of the selected course of action" (Sanderson, 2002:5).

Accordingly, this point of view argues that there are two key types of evidence that are required to improve effective government action. First and foremost, evidence is required which confirms the operational capacity of the different government bureaucratic machine in the policy are under optimal performance. Secondly, evidence is required which to promote improvement through more efficient methods and strategies. Whereas in the former evidence is basically required in the form of information on different components and targets of performance (Sanderson 2002:3). In the later, there is a qualitative difference in that evidence is essentially required in the form knowledge about how well specific policies and practices work elsewhere, and how the policy interventions reform social systems (ibid.)


The 'evidence-oriented policy making' approach contends that there are four major ways evidence can enlighten the development and implementation of policy. First, decisions about what policy actions to follow in a given policy field can be learned by evidence of the probable effectiveness of that policy preferences. Secondly, evidence collected from previously implemented policies functions as a foundation for the prospective deliberations of policy preferences and possibilities. Thirdly, evidence also plays an important role in identifying not on the most important problems in that policy field but also those problems that should be accorded the highest priority in policy intervention. And, finally, improved knowledge about policy problems and possible policy preferences can help to involve the concerned stakeholders in a healthy debate about how to set objectives (Sanderson 2002:4). This approach thus depends on the evidence (usually quantitative) that both in theory and practice determines effective policy preferences.

This rationalist approach submits that self-interest (in this case attributable to states as entities) and rational behaviour might provide solution to public policy problems. As a result, this approach leads to the hypothesis that what works in one state should also work in other, since there are massive statistical and scientific evidence in the field where policymakers can draw valuable lessons from (Hill 2005:51).

The main impetus for looking at previous implemented policies and institutional arrangements and learning by monitoring and evaluation is because learning is a means to reduce errors (Radaelli 2004:6). Learning from the experience of others can be more efficient than learning from one's own experience, since it minimizes the risk of failures. Thus, actors are able and willing to use learning within organizational networks under the OMC, as they believe in the possibility of finding a solution for their respective problems within this network, using it as "radar" (ibid.7).

In addition, benchmarking entails the comparative measurement of performance of one organization against other organizations, within a defined target (Heritier 2002:5). From this perspective, it suggests comparing member states against each other within the employment guidelines and indicators. This process, then, can be said to be the learning process in practice, since it entails looking for the 'best practices' in order to eliminate the prospect of performance gaps on eventual adoption of the policy preference. Benchmarking can be defined as a "practical tool for improving performance by learning from best practices and the processes by which they are achieved" (O'Reagain and Keegan in: Schludi 2003). Moreover, different strand of academics define a benchmark in a rather mechanical and rational way, declaring it to be "a standard or point of reference against which things may be compared or assessed" (ibid 2003). Hence, from this perspective, benchmarking denotes the comparative evaluation of performance and the eradication of prevailing performance gaps, based on qualitative criterions.


According to Graham (1999:5.), there are "seven nemeses" to 'evidence-based policy' namely; bureaucratic logic, the bottom line, consensus, politics, civil service culture, cynicism and time. First, bureaucratic logic entails that misreading of the current situation and collected evidence is a hindering factor to any policy development. From this point of view, bureaucratic logic is phrased as "things are right because they have always been done this way" (ibid.) and there is no reason to change it, even if the prevailing way of policy-making is epistemologically flawed. "The bottom line" refers to the idea that the effectiveness of policies cannot be measured by quantitative and qualitative substantiations alone because in practice, policy is built on consensus rather than on indubitable evidence. Policy in practice involves an extensive process of consultation carried out to determine different interest and preferences of all concerned actors, and the limits of a solution that will satisfy every one of these actors.

A salient constraint in the identification of 'best practice' is that it does not essentially identify the suitable strategy by which it can be applied to different institutional setting. Even if granted that policy learning results to reform, the precise policy transfer might be unsuccessful. Indeed, Dolowitz and Marsh (2000), claim that there are some notable factors that cause policy transfer to diverge from the targets set by policy-makers making the transfer. For example, the failure of the importing state to replicate the transferred policy in accordance with the targets set by policy-makers of the exporting state can be as a result of uneducated transfer, especially if there is not adequate information about the policy and how it should operates in another institutional setting. Finally, Dolowitz and Marsh talk about unsuitable policy transfer if enough attention is not paid to the different economic, social, political and institutional background in the importing member state.

'Constructive scepticism'

For the 'constructivist scepticism' approach, given that knowledge of the social world is not only socially constructed and culturally as well as historically dependent; knowledge and learning, and their roles in policy-making are complex issues. According to this point of view, policy learning and development is understood as a "process of deliberation which considers beliefs, principles and actions under conditions of multiple frames for the explanation and evaluation of the social world (Dryzek,16).

The evaluation of the mutual learning processes cannot simply be reduced to a "technical exercise" since like all the other aspect of the policy-making; it is conditioned by different preferences, norms, values, and unique institutional backgrounds. Consequently, the evaluation of any processes or experience should be based on a communicative and argumentative process (Sanderson 2003:338). As Schwandt contends, there is a need for "critical intelligence" which is basically "the ability to question whether the end is worth achieving. It does not call for just basic knowledge of effects, but the willingness and capacity to debate the value of different ends of a practice" (Schwandt in: Sanderson 2003:338). Given that the variations in national circumstances are high, it can be reasoned that not only "what counts is what works", but "what is appropriate" is also important for each specific national circumstance. In short, the consideration of the appropriateness of the means and ends of a policy process is of utmost importance (ibid: 332).


According to this perspective, dependence practical evidence to draw direct policy decision cannot be absolute. "It is recognized that knowledge comes in different forms" (Campbell 2002:89), and as such, it is not only the experts who should play a role in decision-making but also non experts, since no knowledge is a waste. In short, when policy makers are on the quest to learn lessons "their own country's past is the best place to start'' (Dolowitz and Marsh 1996:351).

By looking back into the historic past, ''actors learn not only what has worked, but can also learn and know what not to repeat". Therefore, cross-national and bottom-up benchmarking has a tendency to reveal the flaws inherent in national policies, circumvent ineffective policies, avoid costly policy blunders, and challenge those practices that have seized to be effective, which in the end, increases the legitimacy of policy preferences and policy tools used.

The increasing diffusion of ideas and information is an obvious opportunity for national policy-makers. It does not necessarily entail statistical and scientific substantiations for policy-making, but it can lead to the imitation of useful ideas and decisions at the national level. It also entails the dissemination of collective language, i.e. particular expression which has specific meaning both for the EU development in social policy and its Member States alike.

Even though academic research on the mutual policy learning instruments conceptualize benchmarking, in a rather technical way, we argue in this paper that it also has cognitive and normative values, which can be seen as a prospects and possibilities provided by this kind of policy learning to struggle for the convergence in outputs. "Benchmarking may assist in developing and justifying policy responses that are unlikely to be discovered within a member state's prevailing institutional settings. As a result, it may function as an instrument to relax the often strong path dependency of prevailing welfare state structures" (Heinze et al. in: Schludi 2003:13).

Given the high extent of national welfare traditions diversities, benchmarking in social policy at the EU level should be able to recognize these diversities and acknowledge its supplementary value, i.e. it provides the basis for the exchange of 'best practices' and experience without the need to impose a top-down solution.


The danger and limitation to the learning might also come from a situation, when involvement is neglected and the core of the OMC is formed only by politicians and experts, thus, instead of 'opening-up' the process, it becomes even more technocratic. "Negative lesson-drawing" is also of utmost importance. If mutual learning between member states becomes too cooperative to the extent that sufficient attention is no longer paid to negative lessons or policy failures, it may be wise to neglect important alternative solutions and take a more independent critical look at benchmarking. Put differently, learning is abetted by error inasmuch as by success (Radaelli 2004:26). Therefore, the challenge is to find a right balance between the cooperative and competitive learning (ibid.), and by so doing, governments may use their 'critical intelligence' and withdraw from policy reforms because of what they have learnt (Schludi 2003:14).

The EES and mutual learning

Having provided an extensive analysis of the theoretical implications of mutual learning, the paper will now turn to the European Employment Strategy to examine how the tension between the claims of 'divergence' and 'convergence' are treated in the OMC and how it influences the Member States cooperation in the EES framework.

The main purpose of the EES was to establish a legal basis of Community-level action in the employment policy area (while taking national diversity in this policy area into account), with the specific objective to increase the efficiency of the European Social Model through job creation and high employment rate. Besides, the EES was built in such a way that it should function as a catalyst of the best performing national employment policies.

4.1 Contradiction between 'divergence' and 'convergence' - impact on Member States

With regards to the European Council's conclusions the coordinated employment policy was built on the following. To begin with, the Commission introduces general designs of the finest employment strategy for Member States to adopt. Then, after a deliberation with bureaucrats from the Member States employment guidelines are established. Additionally, quantitative and quantitative indicators are established to be used in benchmarking. The guidelines in conjunction with the established indicators are what form the basis of national action plans (NAPs) (Trubek and Mosher 2002), which are then formulated by individual Member States. Each Member State has to provide a detailed account of how it plans to implement the guidelines. Furthermore, the outcomes of the prevailing national employment policy and 'best practices' that might serve as possible models for other Member States are included (Zandstra 2004:10). Once the NAPs have been submitted, the commission then prepares so called Employment Package which contains the analysis of the NAPs, specific and general Council recommendations to individual member states. It is the Council who has the final say on the final version of the Employment Package (ibid.).

Through the use of peer review and exchange of good practices, every member state is directly challenged with the plans and practices of other member states. This indeed helps to procure the standards by which to measure its own performance (Trubek and Mosher 2003:77), at the same time, it also exerts pressure on each member state to endeavour for better outcomes. But the rationale behind the recommendations issued by the Council and their objective are increasingly being greeted with dual feelings from Member States. Groenendijk (2004) contends that the rationale behind the recommendations is nothing more than "naming and shaming", and that the OMC as a soft power policy-making instrument is at times referred to as a "regulation by embarrassment". Nevertheless, through the recommendations the Member States are also informed about the inherent flaws of their employment policies, and they are in a unique situation to learn new ways of doing things or imitate new ideas according to what they have been recommended. The choice of action still lies with Member States; however, the shadow of pressure goes on.

In the light of the foregoing, one of the most difficult tasks confronting the EES is to find the proportional balance between the pressure to exert on Member States to achieve the formulated guidelines and still to respect their diverse national policy arrangements (de la Porte 2002:41). The indicators and guidelines are established in such a way that a periodic comparative evaluation of member states against each other is carried out. The benchmarking process then is grounded on the chosen indicators. "In the framework of OMC, it is the means to evaluate the success of the application of the method, and to put pressure on participating Member State to converge towards collectively defined objectives" (ibid.42). Therefore, the defined criterions with regards to different policy components, goals and impacts, can be prompted both from the top-down and from the bottom-up approach. Anyways, there is a substantial pressure for each Member State to attain these benchmarks.

Many studies conducted in this area have identified a number of problems with regards to the implementation of the EES (see Goetschy 2002; Watt 2004). Among other reasons, the expected impacts of mutual learning might not be attained if a number of stakeholders who are supposed to participate are not participating. Furthermore, the extensive comparative evaluation of the Member States' performance originates from the top-down approach, since they are carried out by the European commission and the Council. Yet, it has been argued that the states will conform only to those collective goals and recommendations that are of national importance, regardless of the amount of pressure (de la Porte 2002:43). It is doubtful whether there will be mutual learning except the mechanisms integrated in the strategy are implemented and implemented in an effective way.

Concluding remarks

This paper adopted two theoretical approaches namely, 'evidence-based policy making' and 'constructive scepticism' so as to expose the theoretical implications regarding the prospects and limitations that confronts the EU Member States participating in the mutual learning. With regards to the implementation of the EES, serious attention is paid both to qualitative and quantitative dimensions of mutual learning. This is exemplified in the arguments of both the 'evidence-based policy making' and its 'constructive scepticism' counterpart. From this perspective, it is the analysis of these theoretical perspectives that help the exploration of the "tension" part of the EES and its impact on the policy learning processes. Indeed, the necessity to obtain technical knowledge about best practices elsewhere has to be combined with the application of a "critical knowledge", evaluation of the appropriateness, and interpretation of the qualitative and quantitative substantiations that relates to the specific national institutional contexts. In addition, this process, as visualised in the design of this policy approach, should be both 'top-down' and 'bottom-up'. This then put the capacity of different actors to engage in the learning processes into serious doubts. The implication is that member states, while voluntarily participating in mutual learning, are supposed to be on constant search for the 'best practices', to imitate or emulate these best practices in order to improve their own national employment policies. Nevertheless, there is an element of pressure present in the form of informal sanctions and the peer pressure with the aim to strive for the convergence towards the EU goals in this policy area. Therefore, the pressure, different arrangements of mutual learning, and rational, normative or practical elements they involve, can provide both prospects and limitations for Member States, since their national institutional context, levels of development, and structural facets are clearly different. This would also suggest that what is seen as a limitation for one Member State, might be a chance for another.