Peer reviews in EU social protection and social inclusion

Newsletter articles

1 Feb 2010

Employment Studies Issue 11

Nigel Meager, Director

Nigel MeagerIES has, since 2006, been involved in a consortium led by Austrian partners (ÖSB Consulting) to deliver a programme of ‘Peer Reviews in Social Inclusion’, on behalf of the European Commission (since 2008, the Peer Review programme has been extended to cover the area of ‘social protection’, ie policies towards pensions, healthcare and long-term care).

The Peer Review programme is part of the European Union’s ‘Open Method of Coordination’ (OMC). This little-known (in the UK at least) term is Euro-jargon for a form of ‘soft law’ or ‘soft governance’, which is used in certain areas of European policy to which ‘hard law’ (policy areas with uniform rules with which member states must comply) does not apply. The OMC, by contrast, has general and open-ended guidelines rather than rules, and provides no formal sanctions for member states that do not comply. The OMC originated with the European Employment Strategy (EES) and has since been applied to other areas, such as social inclusion and social protection.

The Peer Review process is modelled on a similar process which occurs under the EES (the Mutual Learning Programme, which IES was also involved in co-ordinating until 2008). The Peer Reviews are designed to stimulate an open discussion on social protection and social inclusion policies in the different EU member states and facilitate the mutual learning process among them. Normally, up to ten Peer Reviews are held each year, with each Peer Review being hosted by one country. The basic idea is that the host country presents a selected policy area as ‘good practice’ (this might be a new programme, a policy reform or a particular institutional arrangement). The policy is scrutinised by experts (including academics specialising in the area) and officials from the European Commission, a number of other countries (peer countries – typically each Peer Review involves up to around 12 such countries), and relevant stakeholder organisations (these will usually be nongovernmental organisations active in the relevant policy area at national or European level). The process involves preparation of a range of reports and other documentation by officials and experts in the host country and the participating peer countries, in advance of a two day meeting in the host country at which the policy is discussed (if appropriate, the meeting may also be supplemented with a site visit, in order for the peer country participants to observe the policy in action ‘on the ground’).

The aim is to assess the evidence on the policy and its effectiveness, to establish how it contributes to EU objectives, to uncover any flaws (eg by comparison with relevant policies in the peer countries), and to assess whether the policy or elements of it could be effectively transferred to other member states.

The host country can also use the Peer Review meetings to gather expert advice from other countries in order to inform the process of preparation of a major policy reform in the field of social protection and social inclusion (or new programme or institutional arrangement). The aim would be to take advantage of ‘good practices’ existing in other EU countries to improve the efficiency of their reforms.

The relatively small number of expert participants at Peer Reviews (typically around 30) and the in-depth nature of the documentation and the discussions, encourages a high degree of openness and frankness about ‘what works and what does not’, which helps contribute to the learning value of the activities.

IES is involved in the facilitation of some of the Peer Reviews. In the past 12 months, IES has played a key role in four Peer Reviews:

  • an examination of German policies aimed at women’s return to the labour market (November 2008)
  • Danish innovations aimed at ‘combining choice, quality and equity in social services’ (April 2009)
  • the City Strategy for tackling unemployment and child poverty in the UK (July 2009)
  • a Peer Review looking at a French initiative to develop a ‘scoreboard’ for measuring the impact of active inclusion and other policies to combat poverty and social exclusion (December 2009).

The full documentation and synthesis reports on these and other recent Peer Reviews can be found on the website of the Peer Review programme.

In addition, IES is responsible for the internal evaluation of the overall programme, looking in particular at the extent to which the process leads to policy learning between member states. While it is very difficult to show a causal influence from the Peer Review programme into policy development in member states, the immediate evaluation evidence does suggest a very positive assessment by participants of the learning value of the Peer Reviews. Additionally, the follow-up examination of participants (six-plus months after each Peer Review meeting) provides some evidence of learning and dissemination within member states, as well as the generation of followup activities, including bilateral contacts and visits between Member State officials, with occasional direct confirmation that experience from the Peer Review has fed into new policy development in individual member states.

For more information on this work, please contact Nigel Meager at IES.