The seeds of the Open European Dialogue were planted in a context of crises that had put a strain on cross-European relations; this strain has only resurfaced through the current global pandemic. To mitigate political tensions, The OED was established as an informal yet constant link between policymakers across Europe. The innovative, member-led platform supports a unique process of dialogue that fosters cross-border collaboration among parliamentarians.
The primary product of the Open European Dialogue (OED) is dialogue itself. The innovation arose out of a time where cross-border dialogue and collaboration in Europe had broken down. In and around the 2015 financial and migration crises, European policymakers squandered opportunities for cross-border collaboration and problem-solving by not reaching out ‘across the aisle.’
In recognizing this gap in communication, the OED (then called the Mercator European Dialogue) was established by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in partnership with other think tanks in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Greece.
The positive impact produced by its first dialogue highlighted a severe and pervasive gap in dialogue among Europe’s policymakers. Participating MPs were distinctly surprised by how their work often paralleled but did not overlap; how they faced shared problems but did not reach out for shared solutions. Importantly, the crucial role that national politicians continue to play in shaping the European debate emerged clearly. European politics is decided in European capitals as much as it is in Brussels, and yet, the effective involvement of national parliaments in the broader European debate remains limited.
There are still close to zero opportunities within Europe for national members of parliament to foster cross-border dialogue outside of high-level diplomatic events. The Open European Dialogue is therefore innovative because it is an ever-present, open platform for dialogue for European policymakers to use to extend their horizon across country borders. The objective of the innovation is to strengthen cross-border dialogue and collaboration among policymakers by offering the place and the toolkit to do so.
The project's name was recently changed from Mercator European Dialogue to the Open European Dialogue to reflect the values and outputs of the innovation more readily: these are trust, openness, ownership, equal participation, and member-led initiative. This collection of characteristics – which make-up the ‘good offices’ that the OED platform provides to its member parliamentarians – is how dialogue and collaboration are fostered among policymakers across Europe.
To achieve the goal of fostering dialogue between policymakers, the OED works in the field of democratic innovation by experimenting with new ways of meaningfully connecting Europe’s policymakers. The aim is to improve the way European policymakers communicate and collaborate.
The network offers different dialogue products through continued experimentation. The OED Monthly Open Calls, for instance, arose out of a need to keep policymakers connected during the pandemic. The open-agenda format of these calls drew in parliamentarians who ultimately needed an outlet of communication at times where parliaments were closed. The OED120 aims to connect parliamentarians with experts through a horizontal, open discussion, encouraging learning and further collaborative initiatives through the dialogue process. Finally, when live events were more easily available, workshops and dialogues were set up through collaboration with organizations like the European Forum Alpbach, which have supplemented its events with unique expertise on a range of topics or unique toolkits for the dialogue process itself.
The focus on dialogue is based on the team's belief in the collaborative, democratic process of decision-making and on the idea that the value of dialogue as a tool lies in its power to address complex, political challenges. As opposed to political debates, the character of an open political dialogue is explorative and collaborative. The team therefore experiments on the different ways in which it can encourage open dialogue among European policymakers.
The future of the Open European Dialogue lies in its full establishment of a permanent platform that lends its process-expertise to a network of policymakers in order to allow them to activate cross-border collaboration. The OED aims to be member-led, encouraging engagement within its expanding network of policymakers on initiatives of their own rather than performing advocacy itself.
Finally, the OED platform has found a niche among inter-parliamentary assemblies. Multiple international organizations have established institutions for formal cross-border collaboration, such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union, The NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The OED has established itself as the first-ever, informal parliamentary network where true collaboration, learning, and peer-to-peer interaction can happen among policymakers coming from all European countries and parties of the entire political spectrum.
Ultimately, both the niche and the innovation found within the Open European Dialogue lies within the team’s aim to establish a localized space for dialogue among international actors.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The OED is Europe's first informal, cross-party network of policymakers that creates a platform for future-thinking and open dialogue and exchange.
It applies human-centric and experiential learning approaches to engage policymakers. Its approach is innovative as it focuses on bringing together diverse perspectives and mapping problem-areas rather than building consensus over solutions as is done in formal institutional and traditional setups.
The process design of its facilitated and highly-participatory dialogues is tailored to engage policymakers in a culture of active listening, allowing for a trusted and meaningful exchange between actors holding competing views.
This allows the team to shake up the European political arena by connecting policymakers beyond their traditional alliances; across party boundaries and national borders, with particular attention to political fringes. It is in the DNA of this network to remain politically neutral and to not force consensus building.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Open European Dialogue is at the stage of implementation and continued experimentation. Since 2015, it has developed and offered different forms of dialogues to its 300+ network of parliamentarians. Some noticeable ones are the MP Open Calls, the OED120s, and the OED Policy Design Sprint that is being developed and implemented now.
The MP Open Calls arose at the height of the pandemic when many live parliamentary sessions had stopped. They are open-agenda calls where MPs have a chance to connect with their international peers over the topics they choose. Unlike the Open Calls, the OED120s are dialogue-centered, live, or online workshops that focus on one specific topic and problem-area at a time. Policymakers are then connected to topical experts to device policy solutions.
Finally, the new Design Sprint format is designed as an intensive, short-burst workshop that aims to tap into MP-held expertise to help them formulate solutions to their self-identified policy issue.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The network is compromised of 300+ policymakers and a steering committee of 12 policymakers from different countries and parties across Europe who participates in the strategic foresight of the project.
Its think tank partners include The German Marshall Fund, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, the Istituto Affari Internazionali, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, and APROPOS – Advancing Process in Politics.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Both the primary stakeholders and beneficiaries of the Open European Dialogue are members of national parliaments across Europe. As project lead, the team also focuses on capacity-building for all think tank partners involved in this project who are then encouraged to spread the OED methodologies with their networks and stakeholders.
With its dialogue-specific process, the OED aims to make cross-cutting improvements in the way political dialogue is done in Europe.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The team has found that dialogue settings, particularly ones characterized by group learning and structured interaction, are conducive to participants accepting a framework of communication that is defined by active listening, peer-to-peer learning, critical reflection, and emphasizing common ground as opposed to difference. These dialogue-focused settings often trigger learning in our participating policymakers. While engaging in joint-learning, members are likely to build relationships among each other that lead to collaboration and contribute to the trust-based nature of the network overall.
Ultimately, the success of the network and dialogues is measured through feedback from parliamentary members and from tracking the different ways in which they have engaged with the OED platform over time.
Challenges and Failures
Maintaining and growing a diverse network of policymakers is a constant challenge as policymakers tend to move in and out of parliament across Europe. Hence, a significant level of capacity and resources is needed to follow and react to political developments across European countries. A well-refined skill set is necessary to attract policymakers from across the political spectrum alike.
The team had to adjust to the new reality of online convening. A continuous challenge in doing so was to overcome the barriers online communication create to human interaction. The process and facilitation of interactive online activities need to be well-designed to ensure the sense of trust that allows for an informal, open, and honest conversation. Without the trust capital the OED has managed to build over the past five years with its network of policymakers, it would not have been possible to use the current level of experimentation and trial-and-error we need to build trusted online spaces.
Conditions for Success
The Open European Dialogue is successful as long as its platform remains attractive to policymakers. The following are key elements for the OED network to remain engaging:
- maintaining open communication channels. Either through online events or live ones, we create opportunities for policymakers to meet.
- increasing the value of the network by drawing on the expertise of our think tank partners, creating a connection between our network of policymakers and network of experts
- creating spaces conducive of learning and collaboration. The OED team needs to build upon its process-expertise on designing dialogues and workshops.
- member-led initiatives. As a member-led network, active participation among its members ensures its vibrancy and continued success.
Ideally, the platform would be referred to by parliamentarians as a unique space where to gather first-hand information and hear perspectives and ideas they would not otherwise encounter in their parliamentary work.
As a platform, the Open European Dialogue can be replicated among different regions of the world. Its dialogue-oriented process can also be incorporated within larger international organizations and assemblies. Direct links to parliamentarians across countries, for instance, could be maintained through visible, official-but-non-formal channels that encourage open dialogue and cross-border collaboration.
Importantly, keeping such channels for open dialogue accessible, neutral, and informal would also encourage a culture of open dialogue in national and trans-national politics in Europe and abroad.
Some of the key lessons learned include:
- Neutrality is crucial to ensuring trust and openness in dialogues, particularly in settings with opposing political ideologies.
- Ensuring that network members stay engaged requires continued experimentation as outputs and processes needs to stay fresh and new.
- Failure is crucial. This is a new space, a distinct project without a clear precedent. Fail, adapt, overcome.
- Be clear about your added value. The team focuses on the value of dialogue and attracts members that see this and are brave enough to expand their scope of influence thanks to highly participatory processes in which there is ownership even in failure.
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
- Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
23 August 2021