Any assessment of the European Employment Strategy must deal with its potential to promote policy learning. Some commentators find this aspect of the EES to be one of its greatest strengths (Ferrara, Hemerijk and Rhodes, 2001). There is a substantial literature promoting the view that governance systems that promote learning can be preferable to traditional regulatory approaches (Sabel, 2000; Dorf and Sabel, 1998; Teague, 2001). There is scant evidence that the EU was primarily interested in learning promotion when it adopted the EES.20 Nonetheless, if EES' adoption of a "soft law" approach facilitates some learning that might not otherwise occur, it would constitute a strong argument both for continuing this system and for employing its methods in other policy domains (Scharpf, 2001).
The question whether EES fosters policy learning and innovation is vital to the overall assessment of the strategy. As important as that question is, we cannot provide anything approaching conclusive answers. The issues are complex and the materials available to answer them sparse to non-existent. But because the question is so important, and the need for further attention to this aspect of its operation so urgent, we offer a preliminary evaluation with the caveat that this issue -- like that of impact on policy choice-- goes well beyond the scope of our study.21
There are two methods that might be used to assess the nature and degree of learning fostered by the EES. The first is to look at the process itself to see if it contains learning-promoting elements. If we can show the presence of such elements, we can say that there is at least a presumption that the EES has learning capabilities. This would require us to look at the entire multi-level process to see to what extent learning-promoting elements are present and at least try to see if they have, in fact, been used. The second -- and more conclusive -- approach would be to measure actual policy change and show causal relationships between those changes and the learning-promoting aspects of the EES. To fulfill this program, we would have to look at policy changes all levels.
A good case can be made that the EES process contains many features that could promote policy learning. If we look at the literature, we can see a number of governance mechanisms thought to promote learning and innovation (Sabel, 1994; Easterby-Smith et.al., 2000). These include mechanisms that destabilize existing understandings, bring together people with diverse viewpoints in settings that require sustained deliberation about problem-solving; facilitate erosion of boundaries between both policy domains and stakeholders; reconfigure policy networks; encourage decentralized experimentation; produce information on innovation; require sharing of best practice and experimental results; encourage actors to compare their results with those of the best performers in any area; and oblige actors collectively to redefine objectives and policies.
The EES contains all these elements to one degree or another. The guidelines and the underlying strategy they reflect do, to varying degrees, challenge national policies in many countries and thus should destabilize prior understandings. The process is designed to create ongoing policy dialogues that engage diverse groups and cross many traditional boundaries within government, between government and social partners, among actors from different countries, and between localities, national governments, and Union level actors and institutions. These dialogues are repeated on an annual basis and so should encourage continued deliberation. Member States are required to provide detailed information on their unemployment-reduction efforts, share best practices, and comment on each others' annual plans. There are several benchmarking mechanisms that encourage Member States to measure their performance against that of the best performers in the Union. Through peer review and exchange of best practices, each Member State directly confronts the plans and experiences of others, thus acquiring benchmarks by which they can to measure their own performance. The Commission and the Council regularly review the national plans and provide comments and recommendations: these are often based on comparisons with the best performers and create additional benchmarks for each Member State.
Moreover, the EES process is iterative and iteration fosters deliberation. The guidelines can be and are changed from time to time so that new information and ideas can be incorporated. Since changes in the guidelines involve discussions with Member States and Social Partners, it sets in motion deliberations that may themselves bring new ideas and information to light. The process brings together actors from different parts of many national government and social partners from various levels who interact with the Commission; in this way it could create a new, on-going trans-European employment strategy network or epistemic community. Such a trans-European network could be both an incubator of new ideas and a force to help build internal support for innovation by the several States.
The existence of such learning-forcing mechanisms suggests that the EES has real potential. But the learning will not occur unless these mechanisms are used, and used effectively. To determine that, we need to look more closely at how they operate. A preliminary glance suggests that the EES has yet to realize the full potential of the learning mechanisms it has embraced. Look, for example, at the obligation placed on Member States to share best practices. Beginning with the second annual cycle of National Action Plans, Member States have been required to present examples of best practice. But this dimension of the strategy is not particularly robust. While a few practices are highlighted in the Joint Employment Report, the primary method for practice exchange is in review of the National Action Plans of other nations: these are circulated to all the Member States. Yet the section on best practices appears only in an appendix at the end of the reports, usually is only 2-3 pages in length, and normally provides only a few examples. To be sure, the Commission has begun to supplement the process with ad hoc conferences on specific best practices but it is too soon to tell if this effort will lead Member States to do a more in-depth assessment of the accomplishments of others ands compare them to their own efforts.
Similar concerns can be raised about the peer review process, another learning method that on its face seems very promising. Each year, Member States present their National Action Plans to all the others and are required to comment on each other's plans. This does foster some peer review. But less than an hour is allocated for the entire session on each National Plan, including a presentation by the Member State, comment by two other States, and discussion. It is hard to imagine that so truncated a session could produce an in-depth assessment or offer very much useful feed-back.
A second way to measure learning is to observe changes in policy over time and see if these changes can be attributed to new understandings brought about by one or more of the learning-forcing mechanisms we have identified. Needless to say, for such an assessment, the crucial policies that should be looked at are those at the Member-State or sub-national level. The best case for EES as a learning system would be one that both showed that changes occurred at this level and also demonstrated that the changes came about through the action of one or more of the EES' learning-forcing mechanisms. Unfortunately, such comprehensive information about changes at the national and sub-national level is not yet available.
We can however, say something about change and learning in the overall EES process by looking at changes in the EES guidelines themselves. There we see significant change taking place and find reason to believe that some of these changes have come about because of the learning-forcing mechanisms. While the Commission has been reluctant to make radical changes in the guidelines for fear of creating confusion, there were important shifts between the 1998 and the 2001 guidelines. Some of these changes can be seen as an effort to refine the original guidelines in light of experience while others really introduce new objectives and set new targets. In both cases there is reason to believe that some of the changes came about because exchange of information and deliberation within the EES process brought new ideas to the fore.
Among the clearest examples of refinement in the light of experience is the addition of a mandate to modernize Member State public employment services. As time went by, it became clear to the Commission and others that the effort to shift from "passive" to "active" unemployment-reduction policies would not succeed unless changes were made in the operation of public employment services in many Member-States so this mandate was added. Other refinements of the original strategy which seem to be the result of learning are the new mandates to eliminate poverty traps by changing tax and benefit policies; to improve procedures for skills certification, and to provide training for would-be entrepreneurs.
In addition to these refinements, there have been a number of more substantial changes that have introduced genuinely new elements into the Strategy. One example of this kind of change is the requirement that Member-States introduce policies to keep older workers in the workforce. In the 1970s and 1980s some countries sought to deal with unemployment by increasing early retirement and making disability pensions easier to obtain, especially for older workers. As the EES process evolved, it became clear that this policy needed to be reversed if Europe was to reduce unemployment while maintaining its commitment to the European Social Model. Early retirement policies reduce the ratio of people in the workforce to those on state-financed pensions. This ratio is already low in many countries, and will decline further as populations age. Early retirement and eased disability policies reduce the number of people paying taxes and increase the number of people such taxes must support. Thus they increase the fiscal burden on the state and often lead to an increase in the tax cost of new job- creation. It became clear that unless policies favoring early retirement were reversed, tax policies would continue to be a brake on job growth and pension systems might collapse. Hence the additional of new guidelines to deal with this issue.
Other examples of new policy initiatives added as the EES evolved are requirements that Member States remove barriers to employment in the knowledge economy and take action to end occupational segregation by gender. Finally, in 2001 the guidelines for the first time set numerical targets for increasing participation of working age adults in the workforce. While these targets quantify goals previously set forth, the addition of numerical targets suggest that the participants in the EES have learned that action is more likely to occur when specific targets of this nature are established.
From this analysis it seems clear that the EES includes significant learning-forcing mechanisms, these mechanisms are working to some degree, and the learning that results is affecting policy development at least at the Union level. Much more work needs to be done, but these preliminary results are encouraging.
20 To be sure, the architects of the EES have never placed great stress on the learning dimension. Both Commission and the European Council have put more emphasis on the EES as a tool for policy convergence and the proposed guidelines for the five year assessment of the EES do not highlight learning. But both Council and Commission have from to time expressed hopes that the system will produce learning. And in a recent statement, Juhani Lönnroth, Deputy Director-General of Employment and Social Affairs in charge of the EES, emphasized convergence of outcomes over policy convergence and put more stress on learning mechanisms such as benchmarking (Lönnroth, 2000).
21 It should be noted that in addition to the questions highlighted in this section, there are additional complex conceptual and methodological issues involved in any effort to isolate "learning" in a policy process as complex and multi-faceted as the EES. Whose learning counts? Is there learning even if it does not lead to policy change? How does not distinguish between "learning" in the sense of a change is views about policy and other motives states may have for making changes?