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ESDN Quarterly Report September 2010

National Sustainable Development Strategies in Europe: Status quo and recent developments

by Nisida Gjoksi, Michal Sedlacko & Gerald Berger

The Quarterly Report (QR) of September 2010 provides a comprehensive update on National Sustainable Development Strategies (NSDSs) of 29 European countries (27 EU Member States, plus Norway and Switzerland). The introductory chapter gives a general overview of NSDS processes, objectives and differences between countries. In the second chapter, the status quo and recent developments in NSDSs will be described and analysed along several aspects, including (a) basic information and institutional anchoring of NSDSs, (b) vertical policy coordination mechanisms, (c) horizontal policy coordination mechanisms, (d) evaluation and review, (e) monitoring and indicators, and (f) participation and consultation processes. Moreover, institution-building and mainstreaming of sustainable development through NSDSs will be reflected upon in a separate chapter. Finally, the QR presents some potential effects of NSDSs. Information for this comprehensive update is based on telephone interviews with NSDS coordinators, the ESDN country profiles and NSDS documents.



National Sustainable Development Strategies – general overview

This introductory chapter provides an overview of general national sustainable development strategy processes, objectives and differences.


National sustainable development strategies (NSDSs) are considered to be among the prime tools for realising governance for sustainable development (SD). They date back to 1992 and Agenda 211 which suggests that “[g]overnments [...] should adopt a national strategy for sustainable development” which should “ensure socially responsible economic development while protecting the resource base and the environment for the benefit of future generations” (Agenda 21, Chapter 8 Integrating environment and development in decision-making). This particular interpretation of sustainable development stems from the attempt to reconcile conflicting interests of developing and industrialised countries at the 1972 Stockholm United Nations Conference on Human Environment and the most famous work of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the 1987 report Our Common Future.

Many countries started preparing their own NSDSs towards the end of 1990s, culminating in a relatively speedy preparation in most of the European countries shortly before the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. In addition to Agenda 21 and the linkage to the Rio commitments, NSDS development was spurred by further UN work (a 1997 Special Session of the UN General Assembly urging for governments to prepare their own NSDSs until 2002; effort of UNDESA and UNECE; UNDP’s Capacity 21 initiative, relevant especially for European countries which were not EU Member States at that time), work of the OECD (the Sustainable Development publication series, work of the Development Assistance Committee as well as linkage to one of the seven OECD’s international development goals) and by the EU through the European Council’s Presidency Conclusion from Gothenburg 2001 which marked the first EU Sustainable Development Strategy (EU SDS). NSDSs received highest attention internationally during 2000–2004 with a watershed of guidelines and assessments of early NSDS attempts by scholars, practitioners and international agencies (most notably Heidbrink & Paulus 2000, OECD 2000, UK DFID et al. 2000, Kirkpatrick et al. 2001, OECD 2001a, Dalal-Clayton & Bass 2002c, Dalal-Clayton et al. 2002, IIED et al. 2002, UNDESA 2002, EC 2004, Swanson et al. 2004). On the basis of the renewed EU Sustainable Development Strategy (EC 2006), all EU Member States were asked to finalise their NSDSs (if they had not prepared one before) by 2007 and to address linkages between their NSDSs and the EU SDS in future NSDS reviews.

The purpose of NSDSs can be described as aiming “to mobilize and focus a society’s efforts to achieve sustainable development” (Carew-Reid et al. 1994). They should provide a forum for societal articulation of a vision of the future, as well as a framework for processes of negotiation, mediation and consensus and capacity building (ibid.). According to Agenda 21, NSDSs “should be developed through the widest possible participation” and “build upon and harmonize the various sectoral economic, social and environmental policies and plans that are operating in the country” as well as be “based on a thorough assessment of the current situation and initiatives”. After the first experiences with NSDSs, it has been understood that in order for NSDSs to remain continuously relevant as well as improve over time, they need a cyclical, iterative process with results of monitoring and evaluation feeding further debate and objective setting (see e.g. UNDESA 2001b, Dalal-Clayton and Bass 2002a, OECD 2001b). This normative process-oriented view, derived from the sequential rationalist policy cycle model (although heavily criticised for being unrealistic, see e.g. Sabatier 1991), became predominant.

NSDSs are thought of as serving to achieve better policy coordination and integration in several dimensions: horizontally (across policy sectors), vertically (across political-administrative levels as well as territorially), temporally (across time) and across societal sectors (public, private, academia, civil society). In Agenda 21 they are presented as separate from measures to improve processes of decision-making, planning, management as well as data and information. However in contrast to the earlier national environmental plans under the process-oriented view, NSDSs also became increasingly understood as vehicles for an ambitious governance reform, marrying the better regulation/good governance agenda with the principles of sustainable development (see EC 2005, Steurer 2009). The goal is to incrementally transform national policy-making in the direction of a more network-oriented and effective multi-level governance; fostering a change towards openness, transparency and public/stakeholder participation under the normative ideals of Habermasian deliberation; and improving the knowledge processes related to decision making so decisions are made on the basis of sound evidence and integrated understanding of the effects of the decision and the involved trade-offs (see e.g. OECD 2001b, EC 2005).

Boundary issues also represent a challenge in thinking about NSDSs. Firstly, in line with Mintzberg’s concept of ‘emergent strategy’ (Mintzberg 2000, see also Steurer 2007) “all existing national SD efforts”, i.e. processes of national capacity building, strategic planning, implementation and evaluation for sustainable development, can be seen as components of ‘a national sustainable development strategy’ (Cherp and Vrbensky 2002). Similarly, also OECD suggests that NSDSs “do not have discrete beginnings or ends” (2001b). NSDSs in this sense can be understood as instruments to further pre-existing SD interests present in the society. However, such a concept of a NSDS, able to encompass practically any policy process, can thus become too blurry. Meadowcroft (2007) argues that it is helpful to keep in mind the distinction between the discrete NSDS strategy process and “the broader practice of strategic decision-making and policy implementation for sustainable development”. However, there are many processes and initiatives, having their own networks of actors, which in a number countries take place outside of the scope of NSDSs (such as pursuit of better regulation/good governance agenda, sustainability, regulatory and other types of impact assessment, attempts at improving management of concrete environmental sectors (e.g. climate change and energy, water management, land-use planning), sustainable development indicators and their monitoring reports, green public procurement, corporate social responsibility, socially responsible investment etc.). They can have significant influence on the social and environmental performance of the country. Secondly, as a logical extension of the first point, there has been a realisation that “[t]he label does not matter” as long as “basic strategic planning principles” are maintained and “a co-ordinated set of mechanisms and processes which ensure their implementation” is in place (OECD 2001b). Now the NSDSs are considered not exclusively as the ‘starting points’ of strategic planning for sustainable development; national strategies for conservation, poverty reduction, regional development or tourism can (and do, although mostly outside Europe, see Swanson et al. 2004) serve just as well (Dalal-Clayton and Bass 2002b, 2002c; OECD 2001). In the tension between the need for concrete measures and tailored approaches and overarching character guided by a broad societal vision, the NSDSs will find their limits: “governance for sustainable development is not reducible to one really big, ideal, SD strategy process” (Meadowcroft 2007).

Differences in NSDSs

An analysis and comparison of NSDSs is complicated by the fact that they are very different from country to country. There is no blueprint for NSDSs. Several years ago, the European Commission in its analysis of NSDSs of EU Member States identified several types:2 Framework strategies “set out general policy directions and guidance for sustainable development, combined with broad lines of action for specific problem areas“, aiming to change processes of policy development and implementation, and relying on separate (sectoral) action plans and annual work programmes as means of implementation (EC 2004, p. 11). This approach carries the risk that the principles and policy guidance formulated in the NSDSs will be too broad and general for practical use in particular issues3 as well as the risk of discontinuities between the NSDSs and their action plans. A less common type are NSDSs which have the form of action programmes with “concrete, short and medium-term objectives, with strict timetables and detailed measures” (ibid.). This approach faces the risks associated with the lack of an overarching long-term vision for societal transition towards sustainability as well as the tensions between achievable and concrete, although limited, measures and ambitious measures which attempt to ‘do everything’ and serve as ‘shopping lists’. Mixed approaches with the NSDSs serving as framework documents but still containing very detailed policy actions are quite common.

In addition, NSDSs to a significant extent differ in scope, objectives, topic areas and measures (as well as the mechanisms of their implementation). The number of objectives varies from 4 to 16 and they are formulated with various structuring principles in mind: along visionary concepts, along dimensions of human well-being, along environmental sectors or along problem areas. Topic areas also vary considerably with the less common being protection of culture, economic sustainability of the government or material welfare and economic growth. Of course, there are many reasons for this: countries vary in their natural and economic assets, in their histories of political discourses etc.

Given the differing contexts NSDSs were developed in, they vary also in terms of their mandate (to what extent they are binding for sectoral ministries or sub-national authorities) and institutional setup (organisations responsible for their implementation, institutional mechanisms for policy coordination or stakeholder involvement). Typically, the Ministries of Environment are responsible for their implementation and monitoring. This leads to several difficulties. Ministries of Environment in many countries tend to be among the ‘weaker’ players when defining national development priorities and means of their realisation. Thus they need to mobilise support of other, more influential actors to move issues related to NSDSs onto political agenda. This disadvantaged negotiation position often leads to ‘watering down’ of NSDSs. Secondly, Ministries of Environment are primarily expected to represent the interests of the environment, while NSDSs should balance economic, social and environmental priorities for achieving lasting human well-being. Ministries of Environment are thus often forced into an ambivalent position of defending at the same time environmental interests and interests of sustainable development (which at times can even be at odds with the interests of environment) and other actors can have difficulties understanding their interests. A logical solution would seem to be to anchor NSDSs to an institutional position central to the government, typically State/Federal Chancelleries or Prime Ministers’ Offices. Such a position communicates higher political will, makes it easier to embody the overarching character of NSDSs and enables representation of the much-needed role of the (neutral) balancing factor between sectoral interests. However, should we understand national development as a resultant force of the vectors of influence of individual sectoral actors, there is a risk that environmental issues will continue to be underrepresented.

1 Agenda 21 is, together with the Rio Declaration, perhaps the most important document related to SD ever adopted at the global level, one of the results of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. It drafts very concrete measures for the implementation of sustainable development in various policy areas and at various political-administrative levels, stressing four pillars of sustainable development – social, economic, environmental and institutional.
2 In the EU the NSDSs are typically what Swanson et al. (2004) describe as “comprehensive, multi-dimensional SD strategies“, i.e. single documents and processes incorporating all three dimensions of SD. They identified three additional types across the world: cross-sectoral SD strategies relating to specific dimensions of SD such as national environmental management plans or poverty reduction strategy papers; sectoral SD strategies incorporating all three dimensions of SD focusing on a specific sector such as a national sustainable transport strategy; and SD integration into existing national development strategies (ibid.).
3 Noteworthy is also the suggestion that since society is such a complex amalgam of contradicting interests the formulation of a broad societal vision by necessity results in a collection of lowest-common-denominator statements such as ‘democratic society’ or ‘prosperity’ which, similarly to ‘sustainable development’, are quite open to interpretation.

Comparative stock-taking of NSDSs in 29 European countries

This chapter provides a comparative overview of NSDS processes in 29 European countries: it reports on recent developments in the 27 EU Member States, plus Norway and Switzerland. In particular, it describes the status quo and recent developments in the following aspects of the NSDS processes:

  1. general profile of the NSDS;
  2. vertical policy coordination mechanisms;
  3. horizontal policy coordination mechanisms;
  4. evaluation and review processes;
  5. monitoring and SD indicators;
  6. participation mechanisms.

The information collected for individual countries is based on telephone interviews with NSDS coordinators1 and on information available in the country profiles section on the ESDN homepage. In total, 21 interviews were undertaken, based on an interview guide in order to make comparisons between countries possible2. For those countries for which a telephone interview could not be arranged, information was taken exclusively from the respective ESDN country profile3.

The findings are then summarised shortly in tables for each of the categories mentioned above. It is important to note that due to the vast amount of new information we gathered during the telephone interviews, we will update the country profiles section on the ESDN homepage in the coming months. Due to limitations of space, this QR presents condensed information for each country only.

1 Interviews were conducted between 23 August 2010 and 22 September 2010.
2 We undertook interviews with NSDS coordinators from Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands (only partially for information in chapter three), Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and United Kingdom.
3 Information for the following countries is based on information in their ESDN countries profiles: Bulgaria, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Netherlands, Romania and Sweden. Information on Poland is not included in the tables (except Table 1) as Poland is undergoing substantial reforms in its state policy planning and development system: in 2007 and 2008, intensive work has been undertaken to create a legislative and institutional framework for preparing the work on a Long-term Development Strategy of Poland.


Basic information on NSDSs and their institutional anchoring

This subsection deals with the status quo and recent developments in revision and political profile of the NSDS and its institutional anchoring. In total, 28 countries have developed an NSDS and one country has a strategic approach on SD but no strategy document (The Netherlands). The first NSDSs were developed in the mid- to late-1990s: Swedish and UK adopted their first NSDSs already in 1994 (published in 1994), followed by Ireland (1997) and Belgium (1999). Most countries, however, developed their first NSDSs in preparation to the UN World Summit in Johannesburg in 2001, other countries followed later in the 2000s.

Most European countries have started to revise their NSDSs between 2006-2008 (e.g. Denmark, Ireland, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Lithuania, Bulgaria), some others recently in the period 2009-2010 (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic, France, Latvia, Luxembourg). NSDS revisions from 2006 onwards are strongly linked to the topics and objectives included in the renewed EU SDS of 2006. New NSDSs are planned in Finland and Slovenia for the period 2011-2012. In some countries, such as United Kingdom and Poland, the future of their NSDSs and related processes is unclear due to recent changes in government.

The NSDS processes vary across countries. Only a few have managed to put it at the core of their national policy planning (i.e. Latvia, Poland see Table 1), other countries have linked the strategy with the general government program (i.e. Switzerland) or reached a better coordination of objectives and goals with other government documents. The majority of the interviewed NSDS coordinators confirmed that the NSDSs remain one strategy among other policy strategies. Moreover, the interview results suggest that although SD is an overarching concept, the NSDSs have not developed into overarching policy strategies for all governmental departments. The findings of the Finnish impact assessment1, which suggest that the added-value of the NSDS lies rather in its participatory and consultative processes, rather than in the document itself, seems to hold true also for other European countries.

Regarding institutional anchoring of NSDSs, there is a clear tendency, that the main coordinating bodies for NSDS processes are the Ministries of Environment (in 19 out of 29 countries). Based on the interview results, Ministries of Environment seems to have the best developed capacity and knowledge for SD. However, they often lack resources and high level political profile compared to other government ministries (i.e. Prime Minister’s Office or State Chancellery, Ministry of Economics, Ministry of Finance, etc). In some countries, NSDS processes are now coordinated by the Prime Ministers Offices or State Chancelleries (e.g. Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Malta, Slovenia, Slovakia and, since 2009, Poland). In Austria, the cooperation between the Ministry of Environment and the Federal Chancellery in the NSDS process has been strengthened.

Table 1: Basic information on NSDSs and institutional anchoring

>> click here for the table (opens in a separate window)

1 Ministry of the Environment, 2010: National Assessment of Sustainable Development 2009. Helsinki.


Status quo in vertical policy coordination mechanisms

As can be seen in Table 2, the NSDSs are in most countries a policy strategy only binding for the national government. A notable exception is Austria, the only country in Europe that has adopted a federal SD strategy, binding both for the national and the regional level, and for which appropriate mechanisms are provided.

Generally, vertical policy coordination mechanisms vary substantially across countries. One can broadly distinguish three groups of countries:

  • Countries that have developed well-coordinated vertical mechanisms with intensive collaboration among the various political levels in the NSDS process (i.e. Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, France, UK) and those that are in the progress of intensifying vertical coordination (i.e. Belgium, Latvia) by further promoting stronger cooperation;
  • Countries that have developed a certain level of vertical policy coordination through consultation mechanisms among the various political levels in the NSDS process (i.e. Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Sweden);
  • Countries that have no separate vertical coordination mechanisms and the cooperation in the NSDS process is almost exclusively based on information exchanging platforms (i.e. Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain).

Below, we provide a short overview of each of the three groups of countries:

Countries with intensive coordination among the various political levels

The interviews revealed that this group has similar, well organized linkages between the national and sub-national levels in the NSDS process. Yet, these countries are very different in their political-administrative systems (federal countries such as Germany and Austria and more centralized countries such as France) as well as in their experiences with SD policies and mechanisms.

The federal countries (e.g. Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland) have usually strong regional governments and, therefore, vertical coordination in policy-making in general and in SD in particular is characterized by intensive cooperation over a wide range of activities. Examples of vertical cooperation in the context of SD are forums (e.g. SD forum in Switzerland), conferences (e.g. expert conference of National and Regional SD coordinators in Austria), or working groups (e.g. national regional working groups in Germany). The vertical coordination mechanisms in these countries have provided several outcomes for their NSDS processes:

  • various tools for the vertical coordination in the review process: for instance, in Switzerland, exchanging expertise among the various political levels led to the development of a special method for assessment at the national level 'sustainability assessment';  in Germany and Austria, common progress reports for the federal and the regionallevel have been developed;
  • various tools for the implementation of the NSDS: e.g. SD strategies or programs at the sub-national level and, in the case of Austria, for the regional and national level;
  • awareness raising and consultative events for different societal stakeholders at the sub-national level.

Centralized states (e.g. France, Finland) have developed specific steering and guidance tools at the national level for the implementation of their NSDSs at the sub-national level, or they have created special institutions at the sub-national level for a better steering process from the national level. For instance, in France the Ministry of Ecology, Energy, and Sustainable Development plays an important role in the implementation for centrally developed NSDS action plans for each region; these plans have to be taken into account in the regional SD strategies developed by the prefects.

Countries with a certain level of vertical policy coordination through consultation mechanisms

Interviews revealed that this group of countries (including, e.g. Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Sweden) is characterized by some collaboration in certain crucial policy topics of SD or in specific project. The mechanisms provide some platforms for coordination of policies between the political levels. However, coordination is done more on a case-by-case or ad-hoc basis (either in a specific project of in a specific policy topic), and in general less structured than in the first group. Examples are:

  • Conferences and Forums for SD, (‘State-regions permanent conference’ in Italy established since 1983, including representatives of national and sub-national bodies)
  • Collaboration and coordination indirectly through the National Councils for SD (NCDS), where the regional representatives are indirectly linked to the NSDS process (i.e. Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Estonia),
  • Strategic networks (in Norway, special agreements have been adopted between the national Association of Local and Regional Authorities).

These mechanisms have contributed to raising awareness of the NSDSs at the sub-national levels, sub-national action plans or SD strategies, and encouraging initiatives related to the goals of the NSDS at the regional and local level.

Countries with no separate vertical coordination mechanisms

This group of countries (including, e.g. Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain) displays no separate strategic mechanisms for the involvement of the sub-national levels in the implementation or review of the NSDSs. Sub-national levels are either weakly involved in the NCSD in the form of some ad-hoc group meetings (i.e. Slovakia) or they are not represented at all (i.e. in the Irish NCSD). The collaboration is limited to specific projects in specific sectors of SD (e.g. in Greece, Ireland) or some partnerships in topics related to the objectives of NSDS (e.g. Denmark).

Table 2: Vertical policy coordination mechanisms

>> click here for the table (opens in a separate window)


Status quo in horizontal policy coordination mechanisms

The concept of SD does not only emphasise the need for vertical but also for horizontal policy coordination, i.e. the integration of different policy sectors. Generally, all EU Member States have developed various forms of inter-ministerial and cross-departmental mechanisms for coordinating the implementation of NSDSs objectives1. The format of these mechanisms varies from inter-ministerial working groups (Estonia), to committees (Committee for a Sustainable Austria, or Committee of State Secretaries, the ‘Green Cabinet’, in Germany) or networks (inter-ministerial network secretariat in Finland). The developments observed in horizontal integration vary mostly regarding the following factors:

  • Institutional structures: three sub-institutional structures play a key role: inter-ministerial bodies at the political level (politicians and administrators), inter-ministerial bodies at the administrative level (only administrators) and hybrid-regimes (politicians, administrators and societal stakeholders);
  • Roles and functions of the mechanisms: they vary within these three groups as will be displayed below;
  • Outcomes of these mechanisms.

Institutional structure

Horizontal mechanisms are categorized on the basis of their institutional structure:

  • Inter-ministerial bodies at the political level: in this case, the inter-ministerial body is chaired by politicians or high-level administrators (e.g. in Austria, Germany, Latvia, Norway, Malta, Spain, Ireland).
  • Inter-ministerial bodies at the administrative level: participants are mainly representatives of the national administration (ministries) under the lead of the Ministry of Environment (e.g. Belgium2, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden, Romania, Switzerland and United Kingdom).
  • Hybrid regimes: in this third group, the processes of horizontal policy coordination (politicians and administrators) are enriched by participation and consultation processes of societal stakeholders (NGOs, business, academia, civil society), e.g. Finland's National Sustainable Development Council and Ministry of Environment, the Government Council for SD in Czech Republic, the NCSD in Hungary3, Slovakia and Slovenia).

Roles of horizontal mechanisms

The horizontal mechanisms (at work in the various inter-ministerial bodies at both the political, administrative and hybrid regimes levels) fulfil the following roles:

  • a coordination function in the preparation of the NSDS;
  • a coordination function in the implementation of the NSDS:
    • either through governmental action plans presenting specific measures for the departments (like work programs in Austria) or,
    • by encouraging the development of departmental action plans (e.g. Belgium and UK) and audit systems or,by promoting the integration of NSDS targets in the target-setting of the implementation of the sectoral strategies;
  • a review and ‘watch-dog’ function: it promotes the collection of information from the ministries in the implementation of the NSDS and monitors the progress of the NSDS.

The inter-ministerial institutions share all the aforementioned roles in horizontal policy coordination, but also display some differences. Horizontal mechanisms which are steered from inter-ministerial bodies at the administrative level have more a preparatory policy-making function. They do not replace any usual decision-making mechanisms. In contrast, the countries locating the horizontal policy coordination institutionally at the higher-level share additionally a political guidance and steering function. This function is reflected in influencing the pace of implementation of the NSDSs in sectoral policies. In countries such as Germany and Austria, where the horizontal mechanisms have not only a preparatory policy function but also decision-making competences through the Chancellary, an increased linkage of political leadership with horizontal coordination is considered to be the case. In cases where  horizontal mechanisms are coordinated by hybrid regimes (e.g. NCSDs), they provide an agenda setting4 and advisory function to the government on SD issues, by providing recommendations based on its wide consultation processes with various societal actors.


The interviews revealed that: (a) the institutional profile of the horizontal mechanisms affects the performance on policy coordination and integration: the higher the political profile of horizontal policy mechanisms, the more visible is the NSDS process for the politicians; (b) horizontal policy integration fosters and strengthens inter-ministerial cooperation and dialogues.

Various implementation tools for horizontal policy integration have been developed in the countries such as

  • departmental action plans in line with the NSDS (e.g. UK, Belgium, Finland),
  • departmental reports on the implementation of the NSDS in specific policy fields (i. e. Germany),
  • national SD action plans for the various departments ( i.e. work programmes in Austria, National Development Plan in Latvia)
  • preparation of policy framing reports on crucial SD issues based on inter-ministerial consultations (i.e. for the preparation of ‘Focus Reports’ inter-ministerial efforts are required in Estonia),
  • various strategies and action plans for the implementation of the Agenda 21.

Table 3: Horizontal policy coordination mechanisms

>> click here for the table (opens in a separate window)

1 Based on the ESDN country profile, the only country where the development of horizontal mechanisms is not clear is Lithuania. Lithuania has dissolved the institution (National Council on SD) responsible for the horizontal coordination.
2 Under the revised act for SD(2010), representatives of federal government members are no longer part of the Inter-departmental
3 Due to new election and governmental changes the institutional structure for the horizontal mechanisms might change
4 Agenda setting function: when drafting proposals for the set-up for the consultation processes of other stakeholders in the NCSD


Status quo in evaluation and review

NSDSs are not only strategic documents but also foster strategic processes. As NSDS processes need to adapt to new situations and challenges constantly, the evaluation of these policy processes and the achievement of the NSDS targets is important and has been introduced in almost all European countries.

The review processes of NSDSs can take three forms: internal reviews, external reviews and peer reviews. The findings of the review processes are employed for different purposes (in some cases as a response to reporting mechanisms on the NSDS’ contribution to the implementation of the EU SDS1 and in some other countries as a response to the national review procedures). Countries also experience different problems in this regard.

  • Internal review: Internal reviews are conducted within the government ministries by the institution responsible for the review process. Usually, this depends on the country’s institutional setting and on the particular institution charged with SD tasks. However, in the majority of the countries, review processes are undertaken by horizontal mechanisms and inter-ministerial bodies also responsible for the implementation of NSDSs. Four patterns are generally evident: (i) In some countries, the responsibility for the internal review sits at the government level (e.g. Malta, Spain, Austria, Estonia, Germany, Cyprus, and Slovakia). (ii) In most countries, inter-ministerial bodies along with individual ministries are responsible for the progress reporting to the government (e.g. Finland, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Ireland, Lithuania, Italy). (ii) While in most countries the NCSD is involved in this process, in some others the NCSDs are solely responsible (e.g. Czech Republic, United Kingdom2). (iv) Some countries are also assisted from independent national statistical institutes (e.g. Austria, Germany, Latvia, Belgium and France). The internal review process can be classified according to timing or according to the underlying subject of review. In terms of timing, some countries have a bi-annual review process that culminates with the publication of a so called progress reports (i.e. Austria, Cyprus, Portugal, Luxembourg, Latvia, Lithuania). Some others have an annual reviews or annual progress reports (e.g. Belgium3, Estonia, France, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom). The majority of them have a less tight schedule (e.g. Bulgaria, Czech Republic Denmark, Finland4, Greece, Malta, Norway, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden). Germany has a four-year review process cycle.
  • External review: Not all countries contemplate the reliance on an external review. However, the underlying trend seems towards a more pronounced employment of this means. Two options are usually employed. Either the leading institutions for the review process commissions a private consultant (e.g. Switzerland, Finland) or the task is given to independent researchers (e.g. Austria)5.
  • Peer Review: Peer reviews have been conducted in four countries, in France (2005), Norway (2006), the Netherlands (2006) and Germany (2009). The idea behind the peer reviews of the NSDS within the EU is to identify and share good practices in a process of mutual learning. The peer review of an NSDS is voluntary and will be undertaken upon the initiative of the Member State concerned. The process should be a bottom-up exercise with participatory elements – involving stakeholders from all political levels – with no intention to ‘name and shame’. The peer reviews are intended to address all three SD pillars and the peer reviewed country is free to choose to undertake a review of the whole NSDS or focus on one or more specific issues.

Utilization of findings

Countries usually employ the findings of their reviews to improve the development of a renewed NSDS or implementation of their current NSDS. In some countries, the results are first discussed in inter-ministerial groups, then in the NCSD. In some countries, progress report drafts are also discussed in the parliament before being sent to the government for approval (e.g. Germany, Latvia). In the majority of countries, the review also led to a revision of the NSDS document and to its institutional anchoring (see above). However, in some countries, there has not been any follow-up, apparently due to a lack of policy coordination (e.g. Portugal, Spain, Greece)

Problems detected

The contribution of the reviews is particularly important because it reveals that countries seem to experience similar problems. Some lack vertical integration or political commitment (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Slovakia, Latvia, UK). In general, goals seem often to be too broad while the means not adequate or the implementation insufficient (e.g. Belgium, Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Spain, UK), no clear mandates are established, or relevant stakeholders are not included (e.g. Austria, France). In some countries, horizontal coordination seems still to be a problem (e.g. Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Spain) while in others, there is a lack of ownership from the ministries for NSDS (e.g. Estonia).

Lessons learned

In NSDS review processes, one can witness a trend towards stronger integration of the lessons learned (on the basis of the review results) in the NSDS revision. Recently, many NSDSs were revised and included new measures for new challenges. A trend towards an increased vertical integration, or collaboration with stakeholders (e.g. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany)6 is also evident. Additionally, countries have worked on the refinement of SD goals (e.g. time-scheduling in target setting) and consistency of review cycles as well as drafting of SD plans or progress reports (e.g. Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium). Further work is also done for a better integration of SD in sectoral planning (e.g. Switzerland, Finland, Germany).

Table 4: Evaluation and review processes

>> click here for the table (opens in a separate window)

1 All countries have developed reports on their NSDS contribution to the EU SDS implementation.
2 The SD commission, which had since 2006 the function of an independent ‘watchdog ‘, will be dissolved by the end of March 2011.
3 Belgium has prepared, additionally, to the annual reports, also bi-annual reports from the Taskforce on SD in the Federal Planning Bureau.
4 Finland is working on the renewal of its strategy concept based on it’s the assessment of its NSDS in 2009. Therefore, it has still not set its new review procedures. Before the 2009 Assessment of the NSDS, Finland had a bi-annual review process. Moreover, it is working on the development of various planning tools as the ‘ex-ante assessment framework’, which should help sectoral policies in setting targets in line with the NSDS objectives. It is also preparing its new indicator set, which then should be linked
5 Austria conducts also evaluation of NSDS`s mechanisms of horizontal and vertical integration by the Austrian Audit Court of Auditors.
6 Austria`s Federal Strategy on SD adopted in 2010 and co-chaired by the Federal Chancellery, Germany (through closer cooperation in specific SD fields),Belgium (revision if the main SD act).


Status quo in monitoring and indicators

Monitoring is an observation activity, mostly based on a set of quantitative indicators. The higher and stronger the link between indicators and policy objectives in the NSDSs, the more measurable are the deliveries of the strategy. This section outlines shortly the status quo in development and revision of the set of indicators, and their utilization in the NSDS review process.

Set-up and revision of SD indicators

Most countries have developed a set of SD indicators1 together with the development of their NSDSs. Four trends are evident in the development and revision of the SDI. A first group of countries will adopt soon a new set of indicators accordingly to the revision of their NSDS (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic, Luxembourg and Finland). A second group of countries has recently completed their revision (in 2010: Germany, Greece and Slovenia; in 2009: Belgium, Estonia; France, Latvia and Switzerland; in 2008: Denmark, UK; in 2007: Norway) and a third group comprises countries that have not revised their indicators yet (e.g. Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Spain, Sweden). Most countries, while revising their NSDS, also have begun up-dating their indicators to new key SD challenges and topics, by better integration of sub-national levels.2


Few European countries possess completely independent bodies (i.e. non-governmental) that are responsible for the development and monitoring of SD indicators (one such case is Germany with its Federal Statistical Office). Most countries collaborate with their national statistical offices for obtaining data. Statistical units within ministries usually perform the development and monitoring task and publish monitoring reports (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland). Only a few countries such as Slovakia, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, Portugal and Cyprus have not yet established such mechanisms.

Monitoring process

The monitoring reports show the status and progress of SD within the country. The monitoring processes vary among countries, based on timing and on institutional capacities. Only a few countries have developed regular SDI monitoring cycles (bi-annually: Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, UK, Czech Republic). There are also countries that update the set of indicators continuously but have not regular reporting mechanisms (i.e. Luxembourg).


SD indicators and their assessment are generally integrated in the progress reports. The SD indicator reports are also used for external evaluation or peer reviews. The trends on SD indicators are discussed in various platforms such as inter-ministerial bodies, at the various political levels, but also at the societal stakeholder level (in the NCSD).

Table 5: Monitoring and indicators

>> click here for the table (opens in a separate window)

1 Some countries, such as Ireland and Slovakia, Netherlands still have no set of SD Indicators which is explicitly linked or used for the monitoring of trends in the NSDS objectives .The work on development of the set of indicator in Bulgaria, Romania and Portugal is still in progress.
2 Many countries have benefited from various works at the national or international level on revision of indicators (i.e. the beyond GDP indicator work done by Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission


Status quo in participation and consultation processes in NSDSs

All countries, when developing their current NSDSs, have brought in contributions from across government ministries and involved stakeholders from various sectors as well as a broad range of interest groups.

Governments are making substantial efforts in broadening the involvement of stakeholders group in order to strengthen the ownership of the NSDSs.1 Additionally, new mechanisms and tools are developed to better engage societal stakeholders in policy-making processes (e.g. Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Austria). In many countries, NCSDs are under revision: the purpose is to make them more independent and less influenced by governments (e.g. Estonia). Some countries are also contemplating the opportunity to separate societal stakeholders' processes from civil servants' coordination (e.g. Slovakia and Slovenia).

As for the institutionalization of the participation processes, one can observe three different trends: (1) countries that have developed a NCSD, (2) countries that use other platforms, and (3) countries that are still developing some mechanisms.

  • NCSD as the main platform for participation processes2: As can be seen in Table 6, 15 countries out of 29 have institutionalized the participation process through an NCSD. This, in turn, permits the involvement of stakeholders in the policy making processes. In some cases, NCSDs are chaired by the Ministry of Environment (e.g. Finland) or the Government Office (e.g Slovenia, Czech Republic)
  • Other platforms of participation processes: Countries that do not have an NCSD are using other platforms, such as ‘SD Dialogues’ (e.g. Switzerland) or inter-ministerial strategy working group (e.g. Austria3).
  • Platform for participation process are still in development4: Several countries (e.g. Romania, Bulgaria Cyprus, Lithuania, Spain, Denmark5) have not yet established permanent platforms for participation of stakeholders. All of them, however, are working on the improvement and establishment of consultation mechanisms with societal stakeholders.

The consultation and participatory mechanisms (through councils or other bodies), of the first and second group display common functions:

    • Discussion forum: the mechanisms facilitate broad debate among the participants
    • Outreach and reporting mechanisms: the thematic seminars/workshops serve awareness raising and education activities
    • Policy preparation, coordination and integration mechanism: regular meetings are held where various topics are discussed (information distributed in the ministries) or recommendations presented to the government.
    • Critical reviewer: the mechanisms are also used for the discussion of monitoring reports and drafts of progress reports with other stakeholders
    • Consensus finding and political guidance: various policy issues are discussed in regularly meetings are held and develops various reports on crucial SD topics and presents them to the government.


The outcomes of theses participation mechanisms vary substantially across the countries. However, the majority of interviewees agreed that consultation with stakeholders were useful during the review or revision processes of the NSDSs and that the results have provided direction in the further implementation of the NSDSs. Finally, civil society was more responsive in countries where NCSDs were very active6. Therefore, these mechanisms play an important role in making the society aware of crucial SD issues.

Table 6: Participation and consultation processes in NSDSs

>> click here for the table (opens in a separate window)

1 The participants in these consultation across countries cover mains stakeholders as representatives from Academia, NGOs, Business and civil society, and civil servant or politicians
2 The government in United Kingdom will withdraw the funding from the SD Commission from end of March 2011
3  This strategy group, established in 2002, has been working on the elaboration of ‘standard of public participation’ in 2008, These standard should be applied by the administration when developing programs and policies.
4 Denmark and Lithuania have dissolved their NCSD.
6 One of the best practices in Europe is the Finish National Council on SD, that has a high- political profile and in its 17 years of work has managed to establish participatory mechanisms , by creating ownership in various societal groups in the field of SD, that cannot be abolished (see Table 6).


Institution-building and mainstreaming of SD

Based on the interviews with NSDS coordinators, this chapter analyses how NSDS processes have affected institutions, policy making processes, legislation and sectoral planning1. The chapter also discusses how NSDSs are discussed in the political sphere and what the obstacles and challenges are for the countries’ transition to sustainability.

With the exception of Denmark and Spain, the NSDS processes have strengthened the capacities of existing institutions rather than creating new ones. All interviewees agreed that this process did not weaken any institution2, and only a few were replaced (for example, the NCSD in Latvia will be integrated in the National Development Council). Across countries, the NSDSs have strengthened inter-ministerial bodies (e.g. Switzerland, United Kingdom, Belgium and Luxembourg) and SD units at the Prime Minister offices (e.g. Malta and Slovakia). In these countries, NSDS processes have also brought to the creation of departmental SD sub-units (e.g. Switzerland, Malta) or sub-committees, subordinated to the decision-making bodies such as the Cabinet (e.g. UK).

Vertical policy coordination mechanisms of the NSDS have also contributed to the establishment of sub-units for SD at the regional and local levels (e.g. Germany, Switzerland and Austria). Societal consultation processes have further strengthened the role of stakeholders through the NCSD and vice versa (e.g. Switzerland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Finland and Hungary). NCSD capabilities have significantly improved due to several dynamics: substantial reforms in their profile and composition (e.g. Latvia, Estonia)3, strong participation in the review processes (e.g. Germany), or through their transformation in independent bodies with ”watchdog” functions (e.g. UK).

The NSDS implementation at the governmental level has provided impulses to parliamentarians acting in the SD field to set up institutional settings in order to increase the control towards the NSDS process in the government (e.g. Germany). There is a new trend towards the establishment of parliamentary institutions in this respect (e.g. Latvia, Czech Republic in 2010 and Germany in 2004). Their purpose is to raise awareness of SD issues at the parliamentary level, to submit proposals for the NSDS process, and to provide recommendations on individual topics.

NSDS and policy-making processes and legislation

According to interviews, the NSDSs have mixed effects on policy-making, sectoral-planning or legislation processes. Half of the interviewees claimed that NSDSs have a rather strong influence in policy making; the other half was sceptical (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece, Switzerland) or believed that the NSDSs were not affecting at all their policy-making and planning (e.g. Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary). Most NSDS coordinators, who were skeptical, believed that the NSDSs are overshadowed by other policy topics such as crisis management or climate change that proved to have more political attraction than SD4. In general, NSDS coordinators had difficulties in evaluating the extent to which the NSDSs or other policy strategies affected policy-making processes. Several interviews revealed that the NSDSs remain a very broad and general platform which offers established-mechanisms for an exchange and coordination of strategies at the administrative level. Accordingly, the NSDSs have created a “participative culture of policy preparation or policy planning processes”. In some countries, these processes have been extremely relevant, also beyond SD (e.g. Austria for transport policy, construction, etc.).

Reference in political debate

The interviews revealed that NSDSs were rarely referred to in political or public debates. And when this happened, it was mostly due to those who are either involved in the NSDS processes or interested in topics such as environmental policy. Several reasons account for this: Firstly, the economic crisis absorbed political debates. Secondly, the NSDSs are just one strategy among several other policy strategies. Thirdly, where and when mainstream economic thinking is dominant, there is little place for debates on SD issues. Finally, due to SD being a rather complicated and an abstract concept, the public has often difficulties in understanding its terms, despite all awareness raising efforts.

Obstacles and challenges in the transition to sustainability

Most interviewees believe that the NSDSs alone, as a policy tool, will not suffice to move countries in the transition towards sustainability. Several obstacles are to be overcome:

Economic factors: The countries' key concern is to recover from the economic crisis, budgets are constrained, and politicians want to employ the few resources in the most effective way. This may have mixed results on SD. Budget constraints might attribute priorities only to sectoral issues and not to cross-sectoral topics, and the reductions may result in loss of expertise (e.g. UK SD commission will be dissolved in 2011).

Political factors: The main obstacle for the NSDS integration in policy making is the politicians' concerns for short-term policies. This is in conflict with the long term SD concept. Nonetheless, some chances are detectable in the political culture: for example, countries are more and more concerned with issues like green growth.

International and European incentives: At the moment, there is no incentive from the international level for strengthening SD policies at the national level. Firstly, the EU SDS has not provided enough guidance to national NSDS processes. Secondly, the failure of reaching common goals in the climate change debate might also paralyze SD policies at the national level.

Way of thinking: The complexity of SD requires a holistic approach in thinking. However, neither policy-makers nor the public is willing to follow and understand the pillars of SD.

Institutional factors: Current institutional structures (e.g. sectoral orientation of political actions) hinder or complicate the coordination mechanisms of NSDSs.

The interview partners suggested several solutions to address current challenges. In particular, they underlined the need of better coordination mechanisms, stronger participation, and a change in SD incentives models. For achieving wider political visibility, the role of stakeholders (business and public) should be further strengthened. Finally, in order to overcome vertical coordination problems, EU institutions should put more pressure and should show more guidance for implanting SD objectives.

Potential effects of NSDSs

The ultimate criterion for judging the success of NSDSs is to what extent they contributed to a balanced environmental, social and economic performance of the state (i.e. the ‘impact’ on human well-being across generations). However it is quite difficult to make such an assessment; in 2009, Finland has undertaken a national assessment of sustainable development as first comprehensive assessment. The causal chains between – (i) the institutional architecture and process of NSDS preparation, (ii) its result in terms of objectives, measures and means of their implementation as well as mobilisation of political will and societal support and building of institutions such as working groups or inter-ministerial committees, (iii) actual implementation through work programmes, action plans, sectoral strategies and partnerships, (iv) mechanisms of achieving change such as new regulation, changes in procedures or budgeting/investment, (v) change in actual practices ‘on the ground’ (changes in behaviour, production and consumption patterns), and (vi) change in environmental, economic or social indicators –  are very long and complex (indeterminate, non-linear) and the changes are taking place in an environment with a complex influence of a multitude of external factors which makes it difficult to make clear attributions. (Nevertheless the methodological challenges should not prevent us from asking questions on impacts of NSDSs.)

Instead of assessing ‘impacts’, second-tier criteria, so-called ‘outcomes’, can be used to assess the success of NSDSs: e.g. to what extent they contributed to coordination in national objective setting, to what extent they influenced delineation of competences, what kinds of measures have been formulated through NSDS processes and whether they have been implemented, or to what extent NSDSs affected national policy planning processes (e.g. in terms of stakeholder participation). Surprisingly, very little evidence exists. Contribution to coordination in objective setting remains hard to estimate, partially also because of the differences among NSDSs. In some countries, NSDSs achieve ‘policy integration through a stapler’, when the objectives, targets and measures of an NSDS is a collection of objectives, targets and measures which were formulated through separate (sectoral) planning processes – thus the NSDS does not serve as a forum for balancing and reconciling sectoral interests through appealing to an overarching vision, but as a reporting platform for all development processes in place in the country. Even in countries where NSDSs aspire for more, it is difficult to identify causal linkages; e.g. policy actors can try to mobilise support for their interests by referring to the NSDS but the added value of the NSDS is difficult to assess. There is some evidence that horizontal policy integration mechanisms of NSDSs were in some countries used by actors involved in strategies related to policy issues beyond the scope of NSDSs (e.g. biodiversity or climate change) which would indicate a positive outcome. It would also seem that NSDSs in general do not achieve redistribution of competences in established policy areas and, although possibly important in identification and raising awareness of new policy issues cutting across boundaries of existing policy areas, their influence on charting competence boundaries in these new policy areas seems also low.  Here, however, evidence also remains sparse. In terms of effects on processes of policy making, it can be said that NSDSs typically achieve strong stakeholder participation in NSDS processes itself, however, their effects on participation in other (sectoral and cross-sectoral) policy planning processes or potential derived measures (impact assessment, public procurement, budgeting etc.) is questionable. Evidence for other process-related criteria such as consideration of long timeframes/intergenerational equity in policy making or integration of all three dimensions of SD into decision making is also sparse.

Typically, and for reasons of practicality, assessments of NSDSs (including the peer reviews, which have not become as widespread as expected) focus rather on third-tier criteria (‘outputs’ as per evaluation terminology, although further in the text we use the term outcomes for all of effects which, not surprisingly, mostly tend to be ‘outputs’) centred on SD institution building (e.g. compositions of national SD councils or inter-ministerial working groups), capacity building, formulated objectives (e.g. the SMART criteria), work programmes or action plans and NSDS-related processes (e.g. stakeholder participation in NSDS preparation). However, the significance and explanatory power of such assessment is strongly limited and only serves to widen the divide between NSDSs and actors associated in the networks centred on NSDSs and, on the one hand, national policy planning processes and development directions as well as mainstream policy actors (e.g. national Lisbon strategies/reform plans, regulatory impact assessment, budgeting etc.) and, on the other hand, SD-related processes and actors which are outside of the scope of particular NSDSs (e.g. corporate social responsibility initiatives, various forms of environmental/sustainability assessment, green public procurement etc.). Evidence for this level of effects is more available. On the one hand, the NSDSs often provide tools and forums for vertical and horizontal policy coordination and strengthen the dialogue among ministries as well as enable better access to distributed information. NSDSs succeed in raising awareness through forums and events with involvement of societal stakeholders and through large-scale participatory processes in bringing the term ‘sustainable development’ on the ‘radar’ of numerous societal actors. In many cases, they contributed to changes in interests and expectations of involved actors as well as to deepening of mutual understanding across sectors and political-administrative levels which can be understood as an important precondition for policy coordination. They often result in creation of further plans such as sectoral action plans or reports. On the other hand, the effect of SD institution building is hampered by limited competences of these institutions (competences often tend to be related only to the NSDS process itself) and frequently lack high-level political and administrative support and resources.

Almost all of the above relates to identification of positive effects of NSDSs. Surprisingly, little has been said in literature about the possible negative effects of NSDSs. Evidence is lacking, but we suggest that the following deserve consideration: NSDSs contribute to competition between national strategies (in particular with national Lisbon strategies/national reform programmes, but also environmental strategies e.g. of nature conservation and possibly also with cross-sectoral initiatives to tackle climate change) and to ‘policy inflation’. They can cause placation of stakeholders, contribute to ‘participation fatigue’ or possibly through botched participation processes lead to frustration and resignation of stakeholders. If failing to influence policy objective setting (especially in comparison with alternative tools of stakeholder participation or policy integration), they potentially serve as waste of resources of actors representing environmental or social interests and misdirection of their efforts. Since sustainable development is a concept very much open to interpretation, and NSDSs often lack mechanisms to control the incorporation of SD objectives and principles in sectoral policies, they can also provide powerful actors with opportunities for ‘greenwashing’ and legitimising business as usual.

1 Interviews were conducted with NSDs coordinators from Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark,Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom.
2 An exceptional case is Latvia. The Ministry of Environmental lost its coordination role and the Ministry for Regional and local Development won more power in horizontal policy coordination and in policy creation.
3 NCSD is chaired in Estonia from an independent university rector, and does not include any representatives of the government. This has strengthened the role of the stakeholders and weakened the role of the government office.
4 In Slovenia, a new Government Office for Climate Change is established, which also take over the NCSD and all coordination mechanisms of the NSDS will be transferred to that body. Moreover, a new long-term strategy on Mitigation of Climate Change, with a perspective until 2030 will be set up soon



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