Current challenges faced by the EU include complicated issues such as asylum and irregular migration, terrorism and violent extremism, labor market shortages, and the “brain drain.” As they cut across a wide range of policy themes and borders, most share the view that these issues are best tackled collaboratively rather than in isolation. How can the EU cooperate to improve policy outcomes to benefit everyone?
The strengths and weaknesses of networking
Networking offers one solution, but what exactly is a network? Put simply, it is a group or system of interconnected people or things. In the context of public policy, we describe networks as a “cooperative structure, where an interconnected group or system coalesces around a shared purpose and where members act as peers on the basis of reciprocity and exchange, based on trust, respect, and mutuality.” The advantage is that, at heart, networking is mutually beneficial.
The strengths of networks are well-documented. By drawing on a wide and cross-cutting knowledge base, they offer significant potential to both identify and resolve challenges. This collective intelligence adds value through:
- the joint creation of outputs and services,
- driving forward change in organizations, and
- facilitating the exchange of ideas across different policy backgrounds and countries.
Networks also have inherent weaknesses. For example, quality may be compromised due to:
- varied information from diverse sources,
- problems from inconsistent capacity because members have other priorities,
- insufficient leadership, and
- weak commitment as volunteers may avoid difficult issues.
Facilitating effective networks
By establishing good coordination and effective support, we can capitalize on the strengths of networks and overcome their weaknesses.
A relatively modest investment can set up a portal or shared space for the exchange of information, know-how, and ideas; a little more outlay can fund a coordinating function to actively propel the network forward.
Experience has shown that active coordination is essential for the ongoing success of networks. The coordinator can monitor tasks and deadlines, add focus, and drive progress — liberating the participants from the more mundane but crucial functions of running the network. Instead, members can concentrate their time and skills on the matters requiring their expertise and insight.
Networks are by nature dynamic rather than static. This significantly influences the methods for supporting them.
Over time, strong networks evolve, mature, and grow their expertise. Members learn through action and by sharing information, both in regard to intended impacts and process of. Participants become more confident in their aims and objectives, and stronger in establishing governance and developing capacity for leadership.
Top-down and overly prescriptive support can stifle growth, limit creativity, and alienate network members. Instead, with a skilled facilitator, the network can be carefully tailored to provide the necessary infrastructure while instilling coaching leadership, initiative, and enthusiasm.
In this way, the intended impacts of the network benefit from the collective skills and talents of all of its members over time. When effectively coordinated and supported, member states can achieve genuinely remarkable outcomes.
Sustaining networking to improve migration and asylum policy across the EU
The European Migration Network (EMN) is composed of contact points on migration and asylum in all EU member states and Norway. ICF operates as the contracted service provider on behalf of DG Migration and Home Affairs of the European Commission.
EMN has evolved in the last 10 years from a peripheral participant producing research papers for its members to a respected source of up-to-date, reliable, and objective information on topical issues of interest to policymakers and legislators. Its well-presented and visually appealing reports and papers are also accessible to the broader public.
EMN products come in a range of formats—studies, reports, events, seminars, videos, and social media. The products are all delivered by national network members working together to provide an EU-level perspective, and they touch on a wide range of interrelated policy fields. They are accessed by a number of EU institutions across related policy areas including employment, trade, international development, border control, and fundamental rights. They are also used by governmental and non-governmental organizations across the member states.
A tailored package of support has accompanied the EMN at every stage of the journey. It began by helping to interpret its mandate through clear operating processes and systems. ICF then provided a robust infrastructure to facilitate face-to-face networking and information exchange which included:
- research methods based on common templates,
- the synthesis of national research reports,
- coordination and monitoring support, and
- the fostering of proactive working groups with network members taking charge of specific outputs.
The network has also benefited from evaluations by third parties. These have presented discrete opportunities for reflection, learning, and continuous improvement.
The need for networks to evolve and adapt to new challenges
How do networks evolve and adapt to address new challenges? What type and level of support can assist them to achieve their new ambitions?
An example of a rapidly evolving network at the EU level is the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN). The RAN acts as a platform for the exchange of expertise among first-line practitioners in preventing radicalization and violent extremism.
Less mature than the EMN, the RAN is currently in the process of evolving to achieve its full potential within the proposed EU Cooperation Mechanism on Prevention of Radicalisation. This will include, for example, a greater focus on educating the EU member states’ relevant authorities on good practices at the grassroots level.
In addition to the general issues faced by all networks, the RAN must address some particular challenges if it is to succeed in playing its enhanced role. Radicalization is a highly complex, fast-moving, multi-faceted, and interconnected issue. Thus, the RAN must evaluate and synthesize new information from diverse sources in a rapidly-evolving research landscape, whilst ensuring the quality and relevance of its outputs.
The prevention of radicalization is best tackled at a local level, so the RAN must identify and include within its scope a diverse and highly dispersed membership. Further, it must be sufficiently visible—and trusted—to serve the myriad local, national, and EU authorities with the necessary information and opportunities.
This will be a very tall order, but one that is fully achievable with leadership, governance, and tailored support. It must be accomplished to ensure the security of individuals and communities across the EU and beyond.
Raising the stakes: networking to counter radicalization and violent extremism
The European Commission established the RAN in 2011. It is now the main platform for the exchange of expertise among first-line practitioners and responders at the local level. These include:
- health and social workers,
- civil society organizations,
- victims’ groups,
- law enforcement,
- counter-terrorism specialists,
- prosecutors, and
- academics and think tanks.
The RAN facilitates the exchange of experience and expertise among its target audiences by identifying tools and practices that can support their efforts to prevent radicalization and violent extremism. These help training, interagency workings, and tailor-made interventions get adopted at a local level.
How can such a complex, wide-reaching, and ambitious network be coordinated and supported?
Crucially, all activities are governed by a charter, and a clear set of procedural rules to provide infrastructure and unite the diverse membership. Implementation is through a series of thematic working groups, decided upon the basis of priority and urgency. Here, effective coordination is a key success factor. The groups are fully supported by working group leaders who steer, invigorate, and organize the work of the network members by:
- preparing work plans,
- reaching out to RAN members,
- identifying good practices, and
- facilitating meetings, training, and transnational exchanges.
The network has established the RAN Centre of Excellence to brand and raise the profile of its work to its wider audiences.
The key to successful network support
Network support relies on two essential factors: vision and a clear understanding of what the network is attempting to achieve. Success requires good governance, robust infrastructure, creativity, pragmatism, integrity, reliability, sound processes and systems, and respect for a shared purpose.
The most successful networks usually have strong and skillful central facilitation. Expert coordination can help to build respect, mutual trust, integrity, and shared values among the network members. This robust teamwork can ultimately create the social capital, motivation, and momentum that underpin sustained success and enable networks to achieve remarkable outcomes.
Sourcing an experienced network support service can help key personnel to focus time and skills on policy outcomes. Expert coordination by ICF helped EMN to concentrate on results.
To learn more about networking support and how it facilitates policy advances, contact us today.