Networked learning in complex policy spaces: A practitioner's reflection on the open method of coordination

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  • Networked learning in complexpolicy spaces: A practitionersreflection on the open methodof coordination

    Thomas Townsend

    Abstract: Open method of coordination (OMC) mechanisms have not gained muchacceptance in Canada in spite of evidence that they could improve policy makingand implementation. In Canada, learning, in particular at the political level,occurs somewhat differently from how it was envisaged in the intellectual under-pinnings of the OMC because of the ethos of intergovernmental relations. Theprovinces, territories and the federal government might, however, improve policylearning by approaching the process in a somewhat different fashion while stillbenefiting from the European experience. The market for learning may exist less atthe level of governments and more at a localized practitioner level. Canada maybenefit from taking an indirect approach to the issue and creating institutionalarrangements that will allow civil society groups to engage in mutual learningmore easily.

    Sommaire : Les mcanismes de la Mthode ouverte de coordination (MOC) nontpas obtenu une grande acceptation au Canada mme sil est prouv quils pour-raient amliorer llaboration et la mise en uvre de politiques. Au Canada, lapprentissage , en particulier au niveau des politiques, se produit quelquepeu diffremment de ce qui avait t envisag dans les fondements intellectuelsde la MOC en raison de la philosophie des relations intergouvernementales. Lesprovinces, les territoires et le gouvernement fdral pourraient cependantamliorer lapprentissage en matire de politiques en abordant le processus dunemanire diffrente tout en continuant tirer parti de lexprience europenne. Lemarch de lapprentissage pourrait exister dans une moindre mesure lchelledes gouvernements et plus lchelle localise des praticiens. Le Canada pour-rait tirer des avantages en adoptant une approche indirecte lgard de cettequestion et en crant des arrangements constitutionnels qui permettraient auxgroupes de la socit civile de sengager plus facilement dans lapprentissagemutuel.

    In October 2003, following meetings of employment ministers at theOrganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) inParis, I arrived in Brussels to take up a new job with the Canadian Mission

    The author is visiting researcher, Centre on Public Management and Policy, University ofOttawa, Ottawa, Ontario. He would like to thank Donna Wood for her comments andguidance.

    CANADIAN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION / ADMINISTRATION PUBLIQUE DU CANADAVOLUME 56, NO. 2 (JUNE/JUIN 2013), PP. 338349 The Institute of Public Administration of Canada/LInstitut dadministration publique du Canada 2013

  • to the European Union (EU). The Paris session was keynoted with apresentation entitled, Good jobs and bad jobs by Richard Layard (2003),later published as an occasional paper (2004). In his presentation, Layardcompared changes in EU member-state policies on active employmentmeasures (policies around training and support for job searches) andcorresponding effects of reflexive policy learning on unemployment. FrankVandenbroucke, then minister of labour in Belgium, chaired the session.Both Vandenbroucke and Layard have played an important role in whathas been my enduring, if sometimes frustrating, interest in the openmethod of coordination (OMC).

    In the years since my first encounter with the OMC, it has evolved andbeen applied in an increasing number of policy areas. It has now beenseveral years since my assignment in Europe ended, but Amy Verdun andDonna Woods efforts to promote OMC-styled mechanisms in the Cana-dian context revived my interest and I have, once again, found myselfexposed as a practitioner to scholarly debates on the efficacy (Hatzopoulos2007) and practicality of collaborative policy learning among jurisdictions(Kerber and Eckardt 2007).

    This article seeks to explain why OMC mechanisms have not gainedmuch acceptance in spite of evidence that they could improve policymaking and implementation in Canada. It also looks at some alternativeways in which provinces, territories and the federal government mightimprove policy learning by benefiting from the European experience. In thefirst section I will look to some of the scholarship featured in this themeissue to understand why OMC-type mechanisms are used only infre-quently in Canada. In the next section I return to scholarship on newopportunities and personal experience to suggest an alternative that maybe better suited for Canadian conditions.

    Better policy and the promise ofnetworked learning

    The notion of agents of policy learning from each other is very appeal-ing. If governments can learn from others it means more effective use ofscarce resources and holds the promise of better social outcomes for thosewho are able to capitalize on the experience of first movers.

    The paper presented by Richard Layard to the gathering of employmentministers in the fall of 2003 used this thematic intercountry approach. Hissimple thesis, supported eloquently by the data, showed that relativeunemployment levels increased as countries adopted a passive (pay ben-efits) approach and decreased as they returned to more active approaches(training and job search in return for benefits).


  • I left Paris with two questions. The first was If policy learning werestructured, could the exchange be ongoing rather than waiting for aspecific thematic study to be initiated? If so, might governments be able todetect and act on good ideas earlier? Using the example in Lord Layardspresentation, perhaps exploring which employment measures were mosteffective in real time would be possible. The second question was Couldthe open method of coordination be the real-time policy exchange I wasseeking?

    Making policy in practice involves three equally impor-tant kinds of knowledge: political knowledge, issueknowledge and organizational knowledge. The waythese elements come together will vary from jurisdictionto jurisdiction at any point in time, and the resultingpolicy approach will reflect these differences

    While I had exposure to the OMC in Canada through some of the earlyliterature (de la Porte, Pochet and Room 2001; de Brca and Zeitlin 2003),it was not until I arrived in Brussels that I gained access to the wide rangeof actors who were involved in the creation and promotion of what wasseen as an emerging and promising form of soft governance. What wasexciting about the OMC was its strong intellectual foundation, backedby considerable learning by doing knowledge on how to develop themeasurement and review components. In attempting to promote a widerinterest in the OMC to federal public officials, I wrote:

    The [OMC] reflects the Europeans willingness to stay with a discussion where there is a gapbetween the ways things are and the way they know they might be. They seem more willingthan us to allow through formal processes a chance to find a better way by allowing opposingideas to enrich and enlarge each other until a new vision emerges and a natural convergenceof ideas illuminates a different way. This slow consensual approach that looks for cognitiveconvergence rather than an executive decision is hard for North Americans to grasp and wehave a tendency to decompose the instrument and dismiss it as trivial (old concepts) or assomething we already do. The OMC must be approached in the context of a structure thatsupports a sustained conversation on a matter that all participants agree is important but mayhave very different views on what needs to be done and how to do it (Townsend 2005: 23).

    Two broad principles were at play. The first principle embodied arespect that the same policy outcome could be produced by differentapproaches. This principle, formalized in Europe through subsidiarity,recognized the importance of context and opened up the possibility of apolicy laboratory with many natural experiments. The second principlewas that of cognitive convergence, a term credited to Frank Vanden-broucke, suggesting that an evidence-informed discourse, through time,


  • will lead to a generalized acceptance of broad policy thrusts. This strongexploratory element, debating ideas, building knowledge around experi-ments and understanding the context of other interlocutors, was seen asessential. It emerges when policy agents are given time not only to knowone another and build trust, but also to know the issue well enough tounderstand its context-specific elements.

    At the time, colleagues in Canada felt that the two principles were notcompatible. A lot of stock was put in best practice, a concept that asingle, right solution existed. Best practice is an engineering term takenfrom manufacturing, which had entered the public service vocabularythrough New Public Management. It argues that a careful examination ofevidence will lead the policy maker to the right choice.

    Making policy in practice involves three equally important kinds ofknowledge: political knowledge, issue knowledge and organizationalknowledge. The way these elements come together will vary from juris-diction to jurisdiction at any point in time, and the resulting policyapproach will reflect these differences. There is no right policy, only policythat is right for the circumstances.

    In fact, the concepts are mutually reinforcing, as revealed by Layardswork. Localities with different practices create the opportunity for com-parisons that, in turn, tend to move them increasingly in a general policydirection of what works. It is clear that a high-level direction, which can beshared by ministers, is not the same as converging on what specificinstruments would be used, which has much greater sensitivity to localconditions. At one level diversity persists, while at another there can beconsensus.

    This point now seems obvious, as we have become more comfortablewith complexity in public policy. In Canada it might allow us to takeadvantage of the large number of natural experiments that take place inmany policy areas while respecting the constitutional and historic separa-tions of activity among the orders of government, although not withouteffort and compromise.

    Several authors in this theme issue offer possible reasons for thedifficulty to establish the kind of ongoing policy discourse that the creationof the OMC envisaged in the Canadian context. These reasons reside bothin the structure of Canadian federalism and in the ethos of intergovern-mental relations. Thomas Hueglin (2013) argues that the nature of Cana-dian intergovernmental relations has favoured specific collaboration whenrequired arrangements over institutionalized, ongoing processes. HermanBakvis (2013) points to a shadow of hierarchy that permeates all federalprovincial relations in Canada. Donna Wood, who looks specifically atlabour market policy, observes that in Canada there is still little inclusive-ness of non-executive players on a pan-Canadian basis, and that much of


  • the discussion is about federal/provincial/territorial jurisdictional fundingsquabbles rather than seizing opportunities for collective learning (2013).She further argues that Europe may be in better shape as treaties haveclarified roles and institutions have been created to specifically support theexchange of information and promising practice among jurisdictions. JulieSimmons (2013) examines the health care system in Canada, in which thereare better developed institutions for information sharing through theCanadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) and the Canadian Institutefor Health Research (CIHR). Even here, however, Simmons is not con-vinced that the depth of learning is that great.

    There may be two additional reasons for the problem. The first lies inthe focus on the policy learning mechanisms as government to govern-ment rather than looking at a larger system that includes many actors ofwhich governments are a part. A second has to do with the nature of thepolicy discourse, how policy is made and the inherent complexity of manyof the policy problems we are facing.

    There are two points that I want to explore further. First, policyprocesses work differently from how they are described. Thus, learning,in particular at the political level, occurs somewhat differently from how itis envisaged in the intellectual underpinnings of the OMC. Second, thereare numerous new actors in the game who may be better positioned to takeadvantage of learning opportunities than governments themselves.

    A systems approach to learningAs outlined in Heather Millars contribution in this issue, the field ofactors in most policy spaces has been expanding (Millar 2013). Govern-ments have been encouraging more and more non-governmental groupsto help in the process of delivering public services and even in designingthose services. So what had already before been a complex space whether employment services, health care or many forms of socialsupport is becoming even more so.

    There persists, however, an underlying assumption that governmentshold the policy and operational levers. For many reasons this may not betrue and, in fact, it may fail to recognize the full ecology of the policysystem and indeed where and how things really happen. In exploring thisassumption more fully we may be able to gain some insight into why thecurrent mechanisms are not as popular as we would like, and receive somedirection for creating learning environments that are more resilient.

    Smart players intuitively understand that linking actions to outcomesworks best when the vector of cause and effect is short. That said, short offixing some high-level framework policies, it is not governments thatdetermine the critical processes of many key social policies. I do not want


  • to suggest that there is nothing governments can do; rather, it would bedifficult for governments to ascribe direct impact associated with theirindividual actions to changes, with the exception of framework effects thatoften take many years to materialize. Success at the political level is largelyclaiming credit for positive change while being seen to act in times oftrouble.

    So let us return once more to Richard Layards presentation at theOECD. Layards argument was in three parts: First, he noted that theOECD had documented fully the various approaches to dealing withunemployed people across member countries. Second, he revealed that thedifferent incentives developed by OECD countries helped to explain thevariations in unemployment among them. Third, in response to thesedocumented variations, EU heads of government developed their firstemployment guideline (Layard 2003).

    Here we can link government action to results, as the mechanisms atplay in the story were wholly or largely under government control. Todaythere are a surprisingly small number of examples that would fit theconditions of Lord Layards analysis. First, the policy delivery structureshave become very fragmented...


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