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How European Countries Are Using Mutual Learning to Improve Policy Decisions

Oct 19, 2017 5 MIN. READ

Knowledge sharing, collaboration, and improved communication are key components of the mutual learning movement.

 ‘A problem shared is a problem halved,’ or so the old saying goes. These words aren’t just an adage though; they represent some of the key reasons why Europe is embracing mutual learning. Given the complex issues that European Union (EU) Member States tackle in today’s fast-paced world—from structural unemployment and environmental protection to cybersecurity and healthcare inequalities—policymakers know that there has to be a better way to encourage collaboration and knowledge-sharing to find solutions.

The answer? Mutual learning.

What is mutual learning?

Mutual learning refers to collaboration and knowledge-sharing between actors from similar organisations, or those with a common interest from different national, regional or local settings. In successful mutual learning models, policymakers, practitioners and/or experts come together to learn from each other, exchange their experiences of what works and what doesn’t, and act as peer reviewers of each other’s approaches. By carefully selecting the mix of actors and defining the learning topics and formats, these interactions can achieve extraordinary results in improving policies, policy implementation, and outcomes for citizens on the ground.

Across the EU, mutual learning is a familiar term for those working in the employment, education, and culture fields, but others may be left scratching their heads. This is because the expression ‘mutual learning’ was originally coined to describe a range of approaches to support the Open Method of Coordination (OMC).

The OMC, an EU policy-making process initiated by the Lisbon European Council in 2000, is typically applied only in policy areas falling predominantly under the competence of the Member States. 

Recently, a new, related term has entered EU vocabulary: ‘benchlearning’. This approach combines the evidence-based analysis and evaluation of benchmarking with the knowledge-sharing found in mutual learning. It has been successfully applied by the European Network of public employment services (PES), and it's gaining traction in other employment and vocational education and training fields. For example, the European Alliance for Apprenticeships has benchlearning as a key component of its 2017-2018 action plan.

What kinds of benefits does mutual learning offer? Read on to learn how public organisations across Europe are using the method.

Improving employment and labour market policies by learning from European countries’ successes…and their mistakes

The power of mutual learning is perhaps best introduced through the European Commission’s Mutual Learning Programme (MLP). MLP provides a unique forum for policymakers and experts in employment and labour market policy to share and learn from policies across the EU.

Part of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the MLP is the principle tool supporting the Employment OMC. The programme consists of a number of different components for evidence-based mutual learning: learning exchanges, thematic events, dissemination seminars and peer reviews, and a database of labour market policies. Different policymakers and experts then work together to inform, influence or fine-tune national approaches to address specific policy issues.

The MLP has helped EU Member States launch new projects, legislation, and policies on complex issues, including but not limited to the:

  • Integration of refugees
  • Implementation of a ‘senior guarantee’ for older workers
  • Establishment of a ‘minimum wage’
  • Provision of individual counselling services to targeted groups

The MLP has also been influential in shaping and, to a degree, harmonising Member States’ policymaking processes. One of the biggest benefits of mutual learning, in this case, is context: shared information helps Member States frame their national practices in a European perspective. This kind of collaboration also makes it easier for countries to better understand others’ successes — and their mistakes.

Skill Forecasting in Estonia

Yngve Rosenblad, Chief Analyst at the Estonian Qualifications Authority, has been an active participant in the MLP. Yngve reports on the direct benefits for developing Estonia’s skills forecasting system: “Anticipating labour and skills demand is essential to enhance economic development and wellbeing, but a complex task to conduct. Learning from the examples of other countries gave us confidence in building up our forecast methodology and possibly helped us to avoid expensive mistakes.”

And how have MLP participants reacted to their mutual learning experience? By and large, they like the mutual learning method. In the most recent survey of participants, conducted at the end of 2016, 94% agreed or strongly agreed that the activities provided them with information and knowledge relevant to their work. 92% agreed or strongly agreed that the activities helped them to gain a better understanding of other countries’ policies and objectives, whilst 91% agreed that their needs had been matched. 

Applying mutual learning to improve organisational performance and public service delivery

From 2015 to 2017, the Lithuanian Labour Exchange (Lithuanian PES) took part in a series of mutual learning activities run by the European Network of PES. The PES’ interest was driven by its ambition to improve customer orientation and organisational capacity, and thereby deliver better quality services for jobseekers and employers. In this vein, the study visit to the Bavarian PES in Germany provided an excellent opportunity for the Lithuanian PES to gain first-hand exposure to the nation/region’s client service model. Informed by these rich insights, the Lithuanian PES developed and piloted its own model in three offices, focusing on a face-to-face customer approach for employers. Following testing, the model was fully integrated into all regional offices by September 2017. According to Jūratė Baublienė, Head of Communication Division at the Lithuanian Labour Exchange, participating in different mutual learning activities helped her organisation to prepare for change, resulting, among others, in the reform of the head office management structure (2016) and the introduction of a new client service model (2017): “As a result of the mutual learning experience, we are better able to handle change with our new performance management system and navigate the necessary transitions towards a well-functioning and performing PES.” 

Expanding the Definition

What about mutual learning at other territorial levels or in other policy areas, such as mobility, energy efficiency, citizen engagement, and more? Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on Piero Pelizzaro, Sharing Cities Project Manager from Milan Municipality.

Sound Theory + Effective Implementation = Extraordinary Results

The many benefits and positive results of mutual learning don't arise through sheer serendipity. Lots of factors—institutional arrangements, organisational culture, resources, political imperatives, power relationships, and more—can make or break its application and success across Europe. Creating the optimal conditions for effective learning requires a sound conceptual framework, advanced policy knowledge, and a deep understanding of how individuals and organisations learn in complex political and institutional settings. Indeed, mutual learning has come a long way since it was first introduced nearly 20 years ago; today, it is an established science. 

By Helen Tubb