The emergence, importance and challenges of a cross-sectorial approach to ESL

Wednesday 11 February 2015, by Urška Štremfel

The multi-faceted nature of the ESL problem in turn calls for a multi-faceted response. Cross-sectoral cooperation is seen a promising solution in this regard. Although highly promoted in EU policy documents, it encounters a lack of conceptual clarity and various challenges to its practical implementation. The proper evaluation of practices currently in place across the EU would help with its development.

At the heart of this article is the declaration (e.g. European Commission, 2013) “In order to be effective, policies against ESL should be cross-sectorial and involve stakeholders from different policy areas”. Conditions for policymaking have changed fundamentally in the last decades as reflected in trends towards globalisation, multilevel policy networks, privatisation and increased democratic participation. It is argued that effective solutions for most societal problems (including ESL) can no longer be found by the respective individual ministries (traditional administrative silos) but only through the coordination of goals and instruments established at different decision-making levels and in various policy areas. In its focus on the emergence, importance and challenges of cross-sectoral cooperation at the system (national, EU) level, the article briefly overviews its interdisciplinary theoretical considerations and exposes the deficiencies in their theoretical, terminological and definitional consistency. Various rationalities for establishing cross-sectoral cooperation to address ESL and in general are discussed, including solving complex contemporary policy problems and achieving shared cross-cutting goals. The clear gap between the promotion of education’s cross-sectoral cooperation with other sectors in EU policy documents and the serious challenges of putting it into practice is exposed. The national strategy and the national coordination body are seen as important cross-sectoral measures for addressing ESL, but their prescriptive top-down nature is called into question. Namely, the literature review conducted in the article shows that cross-sectoral cooperation is a developmental process that needs long-term changes in organisational culture, building trust and the acquisition of the right skills on all levels. A set of conceptual tools making up the overarching conceptual framework is intended to adequately support the process of cross-sectoral implementation. But, even more importantly, its further development requires solid evaluations of the existing practices. Without them, cross-sectoral cooperation for dealing with ESL in the EU would remain an extensively practised yet poorly understood phenomenon.


Demands for better horizontal management between policy sectors are not new. Stead and Meijers (2009, p. 318) cites the work of Finer who already in 1933 identified the need for authority capable of not merely planning all activities for today, but of coordinating all relevant actors for a considerable period into the future. Peters (1998, 295) observed that ever since governing structures began to be broken up into departments and ministries, there have been complaints that one organisation does not know what the other is doing, and that their programmes are contradictory, redundant or both. Pressman and Wildavsky (1984) noted that there is no more common suggestion for reform than »what we need is more coordination«.

More recently, cross-sectoral collaboration is increasingly assumed to be both necessary and desirable as a strategy for addressing many of global society’s most intractable problems (including ESL). Knowing how to respond collaboratively and effectively to contemporary problems that are so interconnected, complex and encompassing is a major challenge (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2015; Heath, 2007; Selsky & Parker, 2005). Authors (e.g. Rayner & Howlett, 2009a; b) argue that effective solutions to these problems (including ESL) must be found by various public policy actors as well as via coordination among the goals and instruments established at different decision-making levels and in various policy areas.

Different forms and classifications of cross-sectoral cooperation are recognised in the literature (e.g. Andrews & Entwistle, 2010) and promoted in EU policy documents (e.g. Nico, 2014; 2016). [1] The section on cooperation in the TITA scientific base is organised according to Edwards & Downes’ (2013, pp. 36-37) classification that distinguishes three approaches (levels) of cooperation: individualised (in multi-professional teams); b) ecological (local community initiatives); and c) policy (national policies). This article concentrates on cooperation at the system (EU and national) level. Research shows that the success and sustainability of cross-sector cooperation at the local level and at the multi-professional team level depend considerably on the appropriate national policy framework to promote inter-sectoral synergies from policy development through to implementation (Edwards & Downes, 2013; European Commission, 2013; Eurydice, 2014).

By considering the intensive promotion of cross-sectoral cooperation as a promising approach to tackling multi-faceted social issues (such as ESL) in EU policy documents (e.g. Council of the EU, 2011; 2015; European Commission, 2006), the lack of its in-depth theoretical conceptualisation (e.g. Bryson et al., 2006), the challenges of putting it into practice in research and practice (e.g. Bourgeois, 2013; Berthet, & Bourgeois, 2014) and its embryonic development level in the ESL area (e.g. Eurydice, 2014), this article’s primary aim is to present the emergence, importance and challenges of multi-sectoral cooperation in addressing ESL. The article is structured as follows. After a brief introduction to the issue, the article first provides theoretical insights into cross-sectoral cooperation, its emergence, definitions and rationale. Second, how cross-sectoral policies are defined in the main EU policy documents on ESL and education in general is presented. Third, the article elaborates theoretically and empirically exposed challenges and certain guidelines for successful cross-sectoral cooperation (in addressing ESL). The conclusion summarises the key findings.


To address the article’s aims, the following methods are employed: (a) an analysis of relevant literature and secondary sources. Within this framework, we conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost, Web of Science and Google Scholar online research databases where the main key words for searching the relevant scientific literature were: early school leaving, cross-sectoral cooperation/coordination/integration; and (b) an analysis of formal documents and legal sources at the EU and national levels (EU official documents in the area of educational policy, non-official documents, press releases), and an analysis of the national policy documents (e.g. legislation, strategies, reports) in EU member states.

Theoretical insights into cross-sectoral cooperation


Cross-sectoral collaboration is an inherently interdisciplinary phenomenon and multiple theories (e.g. network theory, resource dependence theory, corporate social performance theory, institutional economics theory, strategic management theory, social ecology theory, microeconomics theory, institutional theory, negotiated order theory, political theory) from various scientific disciplines (e.g. organisation studies, public administration, leadership, strategic management, conflict management, collective action, policy studies) provide relevant and alternative insights into its functioning (Bryson et al., 2015; Wood & Gray, 1991).

Although the term cross-sectoral cooperation dominates the literature, many other terms are also used to explain the same, similar or quite different forms of cooperation. At the policy level, namely the focus of this article, Tosun & Lang (2013) distinguish between: a) government-centred approaches, which pay particular attention to institutional arrangements (holistic government, joined-up-government, policy coherence, whole-of-government, comprehensive planning); and b) governance-centred approaches, with a bigger emphasis on the interactions of different sectoral actors (horizontal governance, policy integration, boundary-spanning policy regimes). The literature uses a variety of other related (and sometimes synonymous) terms such as partnership, networks, alliances, policy consistency, cross-cutting policymaking, concerted decision-making, policy cooperation, collaboration, coordination and integration (e.g. Andrews & Entwistle, 2010; Stead, 2008; Thomson & Perry, 2006). Despite the various and sometimes even overlapping terms in use, authors agree that cooperation, coordination, collaboration and integration differ in terms of their depth or interaction, commitment and complexity, whereas policy cooperation implies dialogue and information, policy coordination also implies also transparency and avoidance of policy conflicts and policy integration, which also includes joint working, attempts to create synergies between policies, and the use of the same goals to formulate policy. [2]

As the practice of cross-sectoral cooperation has expanded, the nature of these processes has remained poorly defined. Many untested assumptions exist in terms of the definitions, components, structures and outcomes. Cross-sectoral cooperation thus continues to be an increasingly practised yet poorly understood phenomenon (Googins & Rochlin, 2000). Tosun and Lang (2013, p. 1) agree with Hood (2005) that scholarship on cross-sectoral policy coordination and integration appears to be lagging behind the practice of policymaking, adding that “despite the vast corpus of literature, the study of policy coordination and integration has failed to advance clear-cut theoretical expectations and does not allow for drawing generalizable conclusions”.

Emergence and definition of cross-sectoral cooperation

The Weberian classical model of bureaucracy specialised in sectors [3] (professionalised administrative branches) represented the dominant approach to understanding and analysing public policymaking in the twentieth century. Various demands for better horizontal management among policy sectors should thus be studied in this regard (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). Steurer (2007) argues that so-called administrative silos, which are constructed around policy domains but ignore related policies and problems, are an important factor and challenge in policy integration. Policy integration is hence defined as the management of cross-cutting issues in policymaking that transcend the boundaries of established policy fields, which often do not correspond to the institutional responsibilities, rules, organisations and divisions of authority of individual departments (Meijers & Stead, 2004, p. 1; Shannon & Schmidt, 2002, pp. 17-18). Integration is the replacement of specific elements of existing policy ‘mixes’ or ‘regimes’ – the goals, objectives and calibrations of existing policy tools and goals – by a new policy mix, in the expectation of avoiding the counterproductive or sub-optimal policy outcomes that arise from treating interrelated policy regimes and components in isolation from one another (Rayner & Howlett, 2009a). It may also be understood as “a process in which autonomous actors interact through formal and informal negotiation, jointly creating rules and structures, governing their relationships and ways to act or decide on the issues that brought them together; it is a process involving shared norms and mutually beneficial interactions” (Thomson & Perry, 2006). As seen from the above definitions, achieving a common goal and problem-solving are recognised as the two most important motives for establishing cross-sectoral cooperation. Bryson et al. (2006, p. 44) therefore define cross-sector collaboration as the linking or sharing of information, resources, activities and capabilities by organisations in two or more sectors to jointly achieve an outcome (goal) that cannot be achieved by organisations in one sector separately.

The rationale for establishing cross-sectoral cooperation

Cross-sectoral partnerships are seen more and more as a solution to the most pressing social problems facing contemporary society. As the complexity of social problems grows, the need for collaboration between two or more sectors within and across the traditional domains becomes more urgent (Hood, Logsdon & Thompson, 1993; Tosun & Lang, 2013). In that manner, a cross-sectoral partnership can be described as an interorganisational effort to address problems too complex and too protracted to be resolved by a unilateral organisational action (Gray & Wood, 1991, p. 4). An important factor facilitating cooperation is thus, on the one hand, the actors’ recognition that contemporary social, economic and political conditions (problems) affect them all and, on the other hand, that in an increasingly pluralistic society, solutions to social problems must satisfy diverse constituencies (Googins & Rochlin, 2000, p. 130).

In theory, cross-sectoral partnerships not only “enable public agencies to tackle social problems more effectively by unlocking the benefits of comparative advantage” (Andrews & Entwistle, 2010, p. 680), but by enhancing reciprocity and mutual (policy and organisational) learning, they also build future cross-sectoral problem-solving capacity and lead to better policy designs and more efficient policy implementation (Innes & Booher, 2003; Tosun & Lang, 2013). Pooling resources helps to enhance innovation potential by making the most of complementary strengths and synergistic effects of diverse competencies and knowledge on the part of different actors (Gazley & Brudney, 2007; Grudinschi et al., 2013; Heath, 2007; Herranz, 2008; Jupp, 2000; Lasker, Weiss & Miller, 2001; Selsky & Parker, 2005; Soininen, 2014). Accordingly, Gray (1989, p. 5) defines cross-sectoral cooperation as a “Process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible”.

Various studies (Krott & Hasanagas, 2006, p. 556; Page et al., 2015; Pollitt, 2013, Stead, 2008, p. 140), in addition to achieving common goals and solving policy problems, synthesised and mentioned several other factors that help understand the motives, need and importance of cross-sectoral cooperation:

  • promoting synergies (win-win solutions) between sectors
  • reducing duplication in the policymaking process, both horizontally and vertically
  • promoting consistency between policies in different sectors (horizontal) and at various levels of decision-making (vertical)
  • giving a stronger focus to the achievement of a government’s overall goals rather than the achievement of narrower sector-oriented goals
  • helping to promote innovation in policy development and implementation
  • encouraging greater understanding of the effects of policies on other sectors
  • increased efficacy in actual policy-guided outcomes
  • make better use of scarce resources
  • public value creation

Cross-sectoral education policies against ESL at the EU level

The great political significance of education’s cross-sectoral character is closely linked to the Lisbon Strategy where education is defined as an issue of social cohesion and economic competitiveness. Since then, the cross-sectoral approach has been recognised as a promising measure for addressing various important issues (efficiency and equity of education, social dimension of education etc.). For example, the European Commission (2006) states that education policies alone cannot address educational disadvantage since educational opportunities are limited by the interplay of personal, social, cultural and economic factors. Similarly, Council Conclusions (2010) argue that education is neither the sole cause of social exclusion, nor the sole solution to it. In all cases, it is pointed out that multi-sectoral approaches are required that can articulate education measures with broader social and economic policies (employment, the economy, social inclusion, youth, health, justice, housing and social services). The importance of the cross-sectoral dimension in addressing contemporary EU problems is also evident from the Europe 2020 Strategy for Smart Sustainable Inclusive Growth (Halász, 2013), where several flagship initiatives (including the Agenda for new skills and jobs, Agenda Youth on the Move) and targets (including ESL) presuppose the cross-sectoral cooperation of education with other policy fields. [4]

Although reducing ESL was already detected as an EU policy priority in 2002 and various measures for addressing it have since been identified and applied, cross-sectoral cooperation is a relatively recent addition to them. Council Conclusions (2010; 2011; 2015) stated that comprehensive, cross-sectoral strategies providing a range of school-wide and systemic policies targeting the different factors leading to ESL should be put in place and applied. Similarly, the European Commission (2013) argues that »In order to be effective, policies against ESL should be cross-sectorial and involve stakeholders from different policy areas«. These arguments indicate that ESL is understood as a problem of the education system, society and the school, rather than a problem caused only by the young person and their family, background or peers (Nevala & Hawley, 2011). One can argue that the multi-faceted nature of the risk of ESL in turns calls for a multi-faceted (cross-sectoral) response.

Cross-sectoral cooperation in addressing ESL should encompass horizontal cooperation at different levels (from synergies between services or ministries at a higher regional/national political level to multi-professional work at the school level) as well as vertical cooperation between national, regional, local and school levels. Given the complexity of ESL, the education policy field should cooperate especially with employment, social, youth, family, justice and health, with each field playing its own special role to address ESL (e.g. a smooth transition from school to work, mitigation of social disadvantages, offering non-formal learning opportunities) (Eurydice, 2014). In order to ensure the success of a cross-sectoral approach to ESL, different forms of cooperation should complement and support each other (Euryidice, 2014).

The European Commission (2013) has proposed various measures for an effective cross-sectoral approach to ESL. In terms of governance (p. 13), a national strategy is seen as “necessary to ensure a coherent, systemic and coordinated approach, the exchange of good practice, and the efficient use of resources”. Important elements of a sustainable and comprehensive strategy include: a) a coordinating body (ministry responsible for education or a separate agency with the aim to support and facilitate cooperation at the national level, raise awareness and ensure long-term political commitment regarding ESL); b) a progressive approach; c) local and regional adaptation; d) awareness raising and training; e) sustainable funding; and f) monitoring and evaluation.

Eurydice (2014) reports that cross-sectoral cooperation (areas, systematic approach, institutionalisation) vary between EU member states due to their different cultural and political traditions, different political and institutional (vertical and horizontal) structures as well as traditional links and methods of cooperation. Its monitoring and evaluation are still missing in almost all EU member states, making it very difficult to assess its effectiveness (also comparatively) and creating an obstacle to its further improvement and development.

The challenges of cross-sectoral cooperation

Despite the potential of cross-sectoral cooperation to tackle contemporary social problems and the arguments found in the literature and EU policy documents presented above that it is necessary and desirable, various challenges to its successful implementation are acknowledged in practice. Tosun and Lang (2013) explain that, based on the characteristics of cross-sectoral policies, both opportunities and challenges can be expected. Rayner and Howlett (2009a) report that while policy integration is currently fashionable, efforts to replace the traditional ‘policy silos’ are fraught with risks. A very real possibility exists of creating ineffective instrument mixes or incomplete reform efforts with the resulting poor outcomes at the macro, meso or micro level. According to the overall orientation of this article, we especially expose those appearing on the macro (policy) level. Rayner and Howlett (2009a) distinguish three forms of challenges:

  • Politics of implementation: weaning key actors off subsidies or reregulating critical sets of social and economic activities against opposition from those actors who benefit from the status quo.
  • Administrative: related to the link between a desire for better policy integration and a more collaborative policymaking style.
  • Analytical: most notably those connected with the logic of goal rationalisation and, especially, the identification of optimal policy instrument designs.

Benson (2011) identified three overlapping barriers to effective joint actions:

  • The differing worldviews, interests and mandates of the sectors. Actors’ discrete areas of expertise tend to embrace information within their own discipline while disregarding other matters as irrelevant to taking action on the issue. This may lead not only to counterproductive but also conflicting situations (also see Tosun & Lang, 2013).
  • The resource allocation and planning processes within government. The expected courses of actions and consequently resource allocation are defined by governments for sectors. Civil servants’ work is thus evaluated according to their contribution to the attainment of sectors’ objectives, rather than broader objectives requiring joint cross-sectoral action.
  • Capacity constraints within sectors for generating necessary information. Actors usually lack expertise and information about other sectors. Deficiency in this capacity may constrain successful cross-sectoral cooperation.

Nico (2014) identified the following problems in the development of cross-sectoral (youth) policy that either relate to political, ideological systems and will or the lack of knowledge, evidence and data:

  • cross-sectoral (youth policy) as a rhetorical exercise and politically-correct vocabulary (including the lack of a legal framework; intentions with no action; principles with no specific programmes, unclear relationships between departments, ministries or agencies);
  • lack of functionality or efficiency of existing structures (including no communication, no collaboration or no coordination between departments, ministries or agencies; or the overlapping of responsibilities and disregard for what is being done outside or beyond the respective ministry or equivalents); and
  • problems associated with the structure itself (such as the fact a ministry or its equivalents are situated at the bottom of the governmental hierarchy or, alternatively, are not even part of that hierarchy).

The challenges of a cross-sectoral approach to ESL

Moving forward to the challenges of cross-sectoral policy in addressing ESL identified in the EU, Nevala & Hawley (2011, p. 63) report that most countries still have a fragmented and insufficiently coordinated approach to ESL, leading to the duplication of activity and funding. Similarly, Eurydice (2014) realised that the necessary process of creating a shared understanding of the issues, getting to know each other’s culture and motivational forces and establishing common working methods is very recent in most countries and remains a challenge for all. Consequently, there is still little country-specific experience or evidence showing how cooperation mechanisms actually work in practice.

Because the concept and practice of partnerships is still at a very early stage of development (also beyond the ESL domain), much of the conceptual underpinning has yet to be developed and core stages and elements have neither been adequately identified nor tested within an empirical framework (Googins & Rochlin, 2000, p. 141; Edwards & Downes, 2013). The ability to generalise partnership models and capitalise on transferable knowledge is hence also minimal at this time. In any event, some rare general guidelines for successful cross-sectoral cooperation were found in the literature:

In the area of ESL, formalising cooperation, for example, by means of a (national) coordinating body or comprehensive ESL strategy are seen as a way to enhance synergies across government departments and between different levels of authority, schools and other stakeholders. It is regarded as a mechanism for strengthening commitment, improving the monitoring and evaluation process as well as identifying areas for further work (Eurydice, 2014). High-level politics and changes at the national policy level are important, but not the sole factor in successful cross-sectoral cooperation at the lower (local, school) level. A successful cross-sectoral approach requires cooperative efforts at all levels and can be supported but not imposed by one strategic document(s) or legal framework (Christensen & Laegreid, 2007; Pollitt, 2003). Cross-sectoral cooperation is a long developmental process that calls for new skills, changes in organisational culture and the building of relations based on mutual trust (March & Olsen, 1983). Instead of prescriptive policy measures, Edwards and Downes (2013) suggest that a robust overarching conceptual framework, involving a set of conceptual tools to help shape the development of national policies and guide the work of actors in practice, is needed.


It is often assumed at the political level that cross-sectoral cooperation is the Holy Grail of solutions to modern social problems. These beliefs are supported by funding of various forms of cross-sectoral cooperation at different levels, even though there is little evidence of how successful it can be expected to be (Bryson et al., 2006). In EU policy documents (e.g. Council Conclusions, 2011; 2015), cross-sectoral cooperation is regarded as a necessary and desirable measure for dealing with ESL. It is argued that the multi-faceted nature of the risk of ESL requires a multi-faceted (cross-sectoral) response. But there is a clear gap between the European discourse and the theoretically and empirically acknowledged challenges of cross-sectoral cooperation in practice. The theoretical views on cross-sectoral cooperation at the macro policy level presented in the article show that cross-sectoral cooperation is important yet hard to achieve (e.g. Bryson et al., 2015). There is no general theory of cooperation that can fully explain the preconditions, process and outcomes of successful cross-sectoral cooperation (e.g. Wood & Gray, 1991), as well as no single evidence-based answer, recipe or even magic wand that can guarantee its effectiveness. At the moment, while cross-sectoral cooperation on ESL in the EU is being developed at an embryonic level (Eurydice, 2014), based on the literature review conducted the article was only able to identify general guidelines for its further development (national strategy, national coordination body, conceptual framework). But more importantly, it points out how properly designed evaluations of current practices in EU member states are required to provide more evidence-based recommendations for how to cooperate to effectively address ESL and other problems of today that face the EU.


[1Classifications are made according to different criteria (e.g. hierarchical level (vertical and horizontal cooperation between and within EU, national, regional, local, school level); type of actor (state/organisation/individual, public/profit/non-governmental); number of participating entities (dual/multiple); time dimension (development/implementation/evaluation of public policy; ad hoc/contemporary/permanent); intensity (sharing information/merging authority); type of information (voluntary/mandated)). In practice, very hybrid (non-ideal) forms of multi-professional collaboration exist.

[2The aim of the article is not to elaborate the differences between cooperation, coordination, collaboration and integration. The article uses terms as originally applied in the reviewed literature.

[3Policy sectors focus on a specific area of public policy and include all groups, organisations and institutional rules pertaining to that arena of policymaking and implementation (Krott & Hasanagas, 2006, p. 556).

[4Ecorys (2014, p. 3) reports that at the highest political level education was attributed with cross-cutting, horizontal importance in paragraph 9 of the Treaty of Lisbon (2009).

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