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Joined-up governance for fundamental rights

Joined-up governance describes a strategy that aims to coordinate the development and implementation of fundamental rights across government structures. This is done by developing cooperation and coordination mechanisms and tools that link up efforts at local, regional, national, EU and international levels (multi-level), as well as different governmental sectors on one level (cross-sector). Joined-up governance involves not only government departments and agencies, but also independent bodies and civil society, to work across organisational boundaries towards one common goal: making fundamental rights a reality for all.

Fulfilling fundamental rights is a responsibility shared across government levels. If the tasks of each sector or level are treated as being disconnected from one another, then there is a risk that some individuals, and/or some rights, end up outside anyone’s responsibility. This opens up a gap between rights on paper and rights on the ground.

The benefits of multi-level and cross-sector cooperation have been tested and proven in other policy areas and are typically referred to in terms of joined-up or multi-level governance, multi-stakeholder or multi-agency partnership.

1. Introducing a joined-up governance approach to fundamental rights

Joined-up governance for fundamental rights implies that EU institutions and governments at all levels coordinate their work with each other, as well as with other intergovernmental bodies, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and civil society. This should be understood as a long-term, ongoing process.

At the core of all joined-up governance approaches lies coordination – as a tool for effective planning, implementation and monitoring. It brings a number of benefits with specific relevance for fundamental rights:

  • making access to fundamental rights seamless – rather than fragmented – for the individual and society;
  • eliminating situations where policies undermine one another;
  • using resources better;
  • creating synergies through partnerships between stakeholders from different levels and organisations;
  • helping mainstream fundamental rights concerns across all policy areas. 

The picture below illustrates how different levels and sectors can cooperate and coordinate their fundamental rights activities. Alternatively, you can read the content of this image in the text version (Word).

Four principles are necessary for the coordination of a joined-up approach.

  1. Joint commitment and mutual recognition: each sector/level of government is politically committed to joined-up governance for fundamental rights. Each sector/level is also aware of and explicit about its positions and roles and those of other sectors/levels.
  2. Division of responsibilities: the responsibilities for fundamental rights policies and actions are effectively distributed between and within levels of governance, avoiding duplication of interventions and ensuring that the rights of all individuals and groups are taken into account.
  3. Sharing resources: coordination requires that resources are adequately distributed between levels of government. When competences with crucial fundamental rights implications are devolved to local and regional authorities, it is of vital importance that state governments also provide the material resources for their effective exercise.
  4. Sharing and spreading information: information must be regularly circulated among all levels and sectors of government. Such routines avoid overlap in implementation. Information sharing also makes it more possible to address lapses or gaps.

2. Challenges

While joined-up governance for fundamental rights appears to be logical and desirable, its effective implementation hinges on overcoming a number of challenges.

The Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities found in its Third Opinion on Sweden (2012), for example, that the convention’s application depends to a great extent on municipalities but that local political will at times obstructs it. It noted that municipalities do not always recognise that they are bound by the treaties. A further complication is at the central level where it may not be clear which ministry or agency is responsible for follow-up.

The FRA report Coping with a fundamental rights emergency – The situation of persons crossing the Greek land border in an irregular manner (2011) showed how the lack of coordination and cooperation among different sectors and levels of government can hamper an effective government response to a critical fundamental rights situation. It found that administration reporting lines were vertical and that there was little experience in horizontal coordination at an operational level. The following case can serve as an illustration of the impact of such a lack of coordination: in an effort to find aftercare for an HIV-positive migrant who had been hospitalised, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention identified a place for him in a centre for psychosocial counselling. One day before the transfer, the police served the migrant with a deportation order. Fearing deportation, the migrant fled the hospital.

The following issues can limit or undermine joined-up approaches to fundamental rights implementation:

  • Lack of cooperation in the implementation of fundamental rights between levels of government

The state is obliged to implement international human rights law provisions through the adoption of laws and judicial, administrative or other measures. All EU Member States are parties to the majority of the UN core conventions and Council of Europe human rights conventions and treaties. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU is also a legal obligation for the EU and Member States. To give effect to the rights provided in international conventions and treaties, measures must be implemented immediately or progressively by all levels of government, including regional and local authorities. Regardless of the way each state is organised, the rights defined in international treaties shape national and EU legislation and must inform local, regional, state and EU action.

However, like other fields of international law it is not always easy to apply legislation or mainstream policies throughout all levels of government. Challenges arise due to poor cooperation and coordination among different levels of government. The result is that local and regional authorities are insufficiently involved in fundamental rights planning, implementation and monitoring. Consequently, local and regional authorities may not find fundamental rights to be their immediate concern, compromising the implementation of fundamental rights.

  • Lack of consideration of the division of responsibilities among levels of government in relation to the respect, protection and fulfilment of fundamental rights

Very often national level fundamental rights policies and monitoring fail to account for local and regional level action properly – and vice versa. Failure to take account of the distribution of responsibilities between different levels, and/or resource allocation that does not match these responsibilities, may lead to insufficient attention to fundamental rights in service delivery at the local level.

As reports to international human rights bodies focus on state action, the lack of acknowledgement of responsibilities of sub-national actors hampers follow-up of the recommendations from such bodies.

  • Lack of training in fundamental rights of those tasked with respecting, protecting and fulfilling these rights

The important role of public employees – for instance for those working in the police, social services, healthcare or education sector – in implementing fundamental rights is generally underestimated. The result is that public officials are not given the training necessary to align their day-to-day work performance with fundamental rights, for example in public service delivery. It is especially important that public officials acquire the knowledge and skills to discharge their duties to contribute to the respect, protection and fulfilment of rights.

  • Limited cooperation with civil society organisations in the field

Civil society organisations often possess first-hand knowledge of fundamental rights concerns and of the situation of vulnerable groups, as they tend to have more direct access to victims of violations and are more aware of emerging issues. With their community links, they are often better equipped to reach out to vulnerable groups. Therefore, these organisations can be important partners enabling the public sector to fulfil its duty to protect fundamental rights.

3. Benefits of a joined-up approach to fundamental rights

This toolkit shows joined-up governance improves the implementation of fundamental rights. When public authorities at all levels work in a coordinated, comprehensive and integrated manner to guarantee fundamental rights for all, inefficiencies are avoided. It is also more likely that this coordination might help avoid misguided interpretations and downward prioritisation of certain rights or groups by one level or sector of governance.

A number of advantages may be attained by joining up different sectors and levels of governance for fundamental rights:

  • Improving results: When policies aimed at fundamental rights remain sectorial their reciprocal influence and possible contradictions are often poorly considered and evaluated. Tensions between different policies emerge and often remain unresolved.
  • Avoiding error: Joined-up governance requires policy makers to first identify and analyse issues within their sphere of influence that may impact negatively on other aspects of fundamental rights before taking any action. These considerations must take place at the initial stage of the policy process.
  • Encouraging innovation: As actors at all levels and sectors coordinate their planning and action for fundamental rights to live up to their common responsibilities, they are more likely to get fresh inputs and ideas and create new policy instruments and methods.
  • Raising awareness of fundamental rights: The more public officials on all levels work with a joined-up approach for fundamental rights, the more they become conscious of the many ways in which their work affects fundamental rights.
  • Enhancing accountability and transparency: There is a need to monitor and report on achievements and failures of all policies, to find out whether and to what extent public authority operations live up to their aims. This increases accountability of officials, departments and government vis-à-vis their operations and their impact on fundamental rights. Such transparency enables individuals to hold public officials accountable for policy implementation (or non-implementation).

4. Building blocks for joined-up governance of fundamental rights

Joined-up governance has two dimensions that are interdependent and mutually reinforcing: multi-level (vertical) and cross-sector (horizontal) coordination and cooperation.

5. Multi-level governance

The idea of multi-level governance is widespread in the EU since it captures the legal, political and quasi-federal background against which all public policy must be formulated, administered and delivered. Several European institutions have already defined and used the concept of multi-level governance in their own work. The EU Committee of the Regions describes multi-level governance as:

“coordinated action by the European Union, the Member States and local and regional authorities, based on partnership and aimed at drawing up and implementing EU policies. It leads to responsibility being shared between the different tiers of government concerned and is underpinned by all sources of democratic legitimacy and the representative nature of the different players involved.”

EU Committee of the Regions’ (2009), White paper on Multi-level Governance

With some adjustments, the same definition can be applied to the multi-level dimensions of joined-up governance for fundamental rights. Here, joined-up governance implies coordinated action by the EU, the Member States, and local and regional authorities, based on partnership and aimed at implementing the fundamental rights of everybody in the EU.

All levels of governance must be incorporated into three stages of engagement with fundamental rights policy: planning, implementation and monitoring. National government and authorities, local and regional authorities and governance structures and authorities on the EU level should all be:

  • included in national plans and strategies to respect, protect and fulfil fundamental rights, with due consideration of their different responsibilities, powers and resources;
  • involved in the concrete realisation of fundamental rights through respecting and protecting these rights, for example in equality/anti-discrimination action; and
  • engaged in the production of data that measure the state of fundamental rights, their implementation and the potential that they may be violated within the state.

Multi-level coordination may be initiated from two directions:

  • Top-down initiation of the implementation of fundamental rights. Higher levels of governance initiate and provide incentives and guidance for interventions encouraging coordination and involvement with other levels of governance. In this respect, EU initiatives and/or state legislation and planning on fundamental rights can play an important role. However, it is important that lower levels of governance are able to participate in the (re)definition of strategies and tools.
  • Bottom-up initiation of the implementation of fundamental rights. Local and regional authorities take the initiative to promote these rights through coordinating actions with other levels of governance. Here, local engagement for fundamental rights generally plays an important role. It is important that this engagement is not lost when higher levels of governance become involved (Resolution 347 (2012) of Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional authorities).

Existing examples of multi-level coordination related to fundamental rights in the EU

Multi-level coordination is established and relatively advanced between the EU, Member States and local and regional authorities through the so-called Open Method of Coordination (OMC) in the field of social policy. OMC does not explicitly deal with fundamental rights but its aims are closely related to fulfilling a number of important rights, such as the right to the best attainable health, to social security or education.

The three main objectives of the OMC in the field of social policy are:

  1. Planning. Through participation in the OMC, all national governments translate the common EU objectives on social policy into national plans, which are submitted back to the EU as National Strategic Reports. Both the European Commission, and then the Council of the European Union, assess and analyse the national reports and present the results in joint reports that reflect the influence of EU-level initiatives on individual country policies.
  2. Implementing. Participation in the OMC requires the adoption of concrete measures for the realisation of social policy objectives, which are also documented in the reports.
  3. Monitoring. The OMC puts great emphasis on the production of indicators so that it can follow up and evaluate both the planning and implementation phases of the policies in question.

Member States remain free to pursue any approach to social policy implementation. This is both a necessary part of the flexibility of the EU-based OMC and an incentive for Member States to participate.

The OMC examines, for example, the rights of the child and of Roma as part of social protection and social inclusion. Many levels and sectors of governance share the responsibilities to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of the Roma and of children. Therefore local and regional authorities, the Member States and the EU all have important roles to play.

Multi-level coordination of policies and measures related to Roma or children integrates and reframes existing actions, and also strengthens the focus of these actions on fundamental rights. Rights-related indicators to measure progress play an important role in this regard. An example are the set of EU social indicators, which for example are being used for monitoring the Europe 2020 target on poverty and social exclusion. A further example are the child rights indicators developed by FRA to measure compliance with the rights of the child in areas such as family environment and alternative care, protection from exploitation and violence, education, citizenship and cultural activities and adequate standards of living. A study of the EU Committee of the Regions on local and regional cooperation to protect the rights of the child emphasised the relevance and use of indicators, for example in relation to assisting unaccompanied minors.

Cross-sector coordination

Responsibilities for implementing fundamental rights cut across departments whose competences and tasks are often more specifically and narrowly defined. Without inter-departmental coordination there is a clear risk that fundamental rights issues, which commonly require such coordination, are neglected. Cross-sector coordination means that different departments and agencies, usually within one Member State, coordinate their planning, implementation and monitoring of fundamental rights. Such cross-sector coordination may also include building an effective partnership between public authorities and civil society organisations and private actors.

The international community has recognised the benefits of such an approach in several areas. For instance, the World Health Organization has affirmed that the right to health needs to fit into a wider ‘cross-ministry’ framework. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly highlighted in a Report on Young people's access to fundamental rights (April 2013) the role of cross-sector coordination in realising young people’s rights. 

Within EU documents, the importance of Member States developing effective mechanisms for cross-sector policy coordination is often underscored. The European Commission Communication of 5 April 2011 that established an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, for example, stressed the importance of developing an integrated, cross-sector approach. The European Commission Communication of 21 May 2012 strongly reaffirmed this assessment of the framework’s implementation: “legislation alone is not enough: Member States need to develop and implement an integrated and sustainable approach that combines efforts across different areas, including education, employment, health and housing.”

Cross-national cooperation

Finally, cross-national coordination or cooperation can take place, for example, between actors at the same level of governance through, for example, cross-border networks. The rationale for this type of coordination is engagement with fundamental rights and the need to share knowledge on fundamental rights. This type of coordination has proven to be particularly important for local and regional authorities to promote city-to-city learning and good practice sharing.  

An example is the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City. The Charter is the final outcome of the Conference ‘Cities for Human Rights’ that took place in Barcelona, in 1998. Participating cities started by adopting the ’Barcelona Engagement’ – a roadmap to draft “a political document on the respect, protect and fulfilment of human rights at the local level”. The European Charter was finally adopted in 2000. The promotion of the document has since 2008 been entrusted to the world umbrella organisation, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

The World Council of UCLG held in Florence in December 2011 adopted a Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City. It aims at providing a tool for local governments to build more inclusive, democratic and solidarity-based societies in dialogue with urban dwellers during the current economic crisis and a possible loss of attention to fundamental rights. The main differences between the two documents are their geographical scope and that the latter details an action plan for each right which local governments can use as a benchmark.

The European Coalition of Cities against Racism, launched by UNESCO in 2004, is a further example. All member cities must adopt a 10-point plan of action, ranging from anti-discrimination monitoring of municipal policies and administration to the promotion of cultural diversity. The implementation of this 10-point plan is monitored and evaluated using indicators elaborated by UNESCO. This set of indicators can be used to guide different stages of local equality policy, from the preliminary investigation of racism in the city (racism/Equality Indicator), to implementation (implementation or progress Indicators) and outcome/impact (impact indicators). The indicators’ aim is to ensure that local action is in overall compliance with human rights standards, while allowing municipal authorities to implement the UNESCO plan of action in a flexible and locally appropriate manner.

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