The pandemic has affected the way of working in the PES Network. While preparing the third cycle of Benchlearning, lockdowns urged us to put our assessments on hold, but only for a short while…
Dear reader. Our monthly labour market bulletin aims at providing labour market information based on analyses of EUROSTAT relevant data. Due to a change in the labour force survey the unemployment rates for the years 2009 to 2020 will be revised and become available in the EUROSTAT database in spring 2022. Since this requires us to wait for the release of the data, it does not mean that we are not going to issue a new labour market bulletin. Therefore, we would like to give you an update on the ongoing activities of Benchlearning in times of the COVID-19 crisis.
Since the PES Network was formally implemented in 2014, its member PES are committed to a continuous assessment exercise – Benchlearning. Benchlearning combines qualitative and quantitative assessments with mutual learning exercises aiming at improving institutional capacity through transparency, awareness and willingness to learn from each other. Since 2014 the Network has conducted two full cycles of PES assessments and has addressed areas of improvement through ambitious annual work programmes. These efforts of the PES were largely recognised when the European co-legislators extended the PES Network for another 7 years period. Main reason for this extension was an evaluation presented by the European Commission, which judged the implementation of Benchlearning successful and a best practice example for institutional cooperation.
Encouraged by the extension of the Network the members started the planning for the third cycle of assessments. Since 2014 the assessments used to take place as site visits. A trained group of peer PES assessors visit a PES to jointly assess PES capacity and PES performance by major operational areas like strategic performance management, design of operational processes, sustainable activation and management of transitions, relations with employers, evidence-based design and implementation of PES services, management of partnerships and stakeholders, allocation of PES resources and change management. In the PES assessment framework, a separate section is dedicated to each of these areas. In its turn, every section includes so called PES performance enablers, i.e., organisational modalities, structures and solutions, which PES can vary in the short or medium term.
When the third cycle of visits started early 2020, the news have just reported a cluster of a newly identified virus on the other side of the world. The first shock from the pandemic was followed by emergency measures taken by the PES, heavily challenging the institutional resilience. While the first visit of the third cycle could still take place as a physical meeting, the global events forced the Network to put Benchlearning on hold.
From a Network’s view two immediate decisions needed to be taken. Shall the Benchlearning continue given such an uncertain perspective and if so, how shall assessments take place? A decision to both these questions was quickly taken. The Network decided to continue the assessments, however in an online format. On top, the Network decided to mirror the impact of the crisis within the Benchlearning assessments and explore PES performance in crisis management so that to get evidence that PES strategies include organisational solutions towards strengthening the resilience of the organisations. A new ‘crisis management’ section added to the Benchlearning model aimed at supporting a common view on how:
- PES strengthen their capacity to anticipate and respond to situations of crisis, i.e. develop an organisational competence for identifying risks, assessing them and creating appropriate structures and mechanisms for a proper reaction
- PES react specifically to unforeseen events, and
- PES enable its staff to act appropriately in situations of crisis.
In addition, in order to understand how and to which extent COVID-19 had an impact on the PES performance in all areas of PES operations, a specific question was added in the assessment for each enabler in all sections. The ability to systematically anticipate, prepare for and deal with severe situations of crisis draws from several resources and prerequisites that are covered by other sections of the Benchlearning assessment model.
The new section particularly focuses on 3 elements.
- the potential of a PES to identify, assess and respond to potential crises,
- its reaction in a concrete crisis situation and
- the necessary competences and culture needed.
Equipped with this enriched Benchlearning methodology the PES Network started the 3rd cycle. Two pilot virtual PES assessments and the 360-degree view collected from all sides involved – the host PES staff, assessors represented peer PES, DG EMP staff and supporting consultant showed that virtual format works well. Moreover, the PES Network acknowledged certain obvious advantages of the virtual format: an opportunity to involve more peer PES representatives in each virtual visit allowing more PES to learn from experience of their peer, and to virtually visit those local PES offices that locate far away from the Head PES office that would be impossible in case on onsite visit.
Inevitably due to the novelty and the technical challenges connected to the practical implementation of the virtual pilot assessments, the process of preparation requires a substantial amount of additional communication and technical preparation. At the same time, the majority of experts involved confirms that preparation of the assessment teams through additional preparatory virtual meetings prior to the virtual visit proved to be paid off.
What are the first Benchlearning findings from PES operating in a global pandemic?
Each Benchlearning visit, regardless of whether conducted physically or online, produces recommendations for the assessed PES. These recommendations represent the main findings from the assessors and serve as basis for the assessed PES to address areas for improvement. So far, 7 assessments have taken place within the 3rd cycle of Benchlearning, a good point in time therefore to draw up an interim balance.
Besides the many downsides of a crisis one of the positive aspects is, that a crisis bluntly visualises gaps and deficiencies of an organisation. However, this in turn offers many opportunities to effectively address such shortcomings. Looking at the available recommendations from the first assessments of the 3rd Benchlearning cycle, it becomes evident that the PES assessed share similar challenges and that the crisis has revealed similar institutional weaknesses. These are the main findings:
Lack of a comprehensive crisis management strategy
One of the main outcomes of the assessment was the lack of a comprehensive crisis management system. Many PES have certain elements of risk management in place. Most of these focus on financial risks, fraud or aspects of data protection and cyber security. However, as described in the Benchlearning ‘crisis management’ section, the focus should be on developing a resilient organisation by elaborating and implementing a comprehensive and coherent strategy, establishing effective structures for preventing potential damages for the organisation in different fields and by developing alternative scenarios for a given potential risk and crisis situation. It could be argued that the lack of a compressive crisis management system is understandable as there has never been a comparable crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic before. However, doesn’t preparedness for unexpected events characterise a smart organisation? The pandemic has now revealed that comprehensive crisis management systems are essential for organisations to quickly respond to upcoming challenges. This especially holds true in our fast changing labour market environment.
Smart use of key performance enablers
Steering and managing an organisation based on key performance enablers (KPIs) has become routine for PES in the recent past. However, the Benchlearning continues to reveal shortcomings of PES performance management systems in place. Common challenges are the amount of indicators in place, the objectives of the indicators as such and whether PES themselves are able to influence the outcome of an indicator.
Many PES continue to use too many indicators, most of which are not outcome/result oriented but rather input indicators. A handful of result-oriented indicators are suggested that can be extended with optional indicators. Needless to say that these KPIs should be aligned with the overall strategy of the organisation, which requires continuous reflection and adaptation. Some PES are using indicators for which the PES have no direct and substantial influence. Thus, even if the information gathered through such indicators are valuable such indicators are less useful to steer an organisation.
The digital challenge
The pandemic has speeded up the digitalisation of PES, however not all PES have managed the digital transformation equally well. Overall those PES that were already advanced in digitalising their services were able to better adapt to the crisis environment. The more services were already available in a digital way the better was a PES able to maintain service delivery during the pandemic. Digitalising PES not only refers to services to customers but also to building up sufficient digital capacity for PES staff. IT must not be perceived as burden by staff therefore continuous training need to go hand in hand with IT investment.
Partnership building – an unexploited potential
Most PES do have long lasting partnerships with various labour market stakeholders established. Certain potentials seem however not sufficiently exploited. There are several, however not many, examples where partners are actively involved into service creation. Lack of comprehensive partnership strategies reflect an insufficient examination of the potentials of partnerships.
Improving quality management
Many PES have successfully built up functioning quality management system in recent years. However, there is still high potential for improvement. For a comprehensive quality management system it is essential to link quality management to all other management processes and to make it part of the institutional culture. This includes making quality management an integrated part of all services, processes and ALMPs and ensuring that all the staff are aware that quality means more than simply assessing compliance.
These are in short, the first findings of the 3rd Benchlearning cycle. It is very likely that the site visits will continue as online assessments for the forthcoming months. By then end of 2022 all member PES will be assessed and will receive recommendations. We are looking forward to updating you on further findings.