2. Strategic education governance

One of the most important developments in education governance has been decentralisation to enable greater responsiveness to diverse local demands. Systems are characterised by multi-level governance where the links between multiple actors operating at different levels are subject to change.

Education systems have been moving away from hierarchical relationships to a division of labour, joint activity and self-regulation. As a result, there is an increased number of actors, who need one another and whose activity increasingly takes place across rather than within organisations (Osborne, 2006[1]). Lump-sum funding, strengthening of stakeholders, horizontal accountability and holding local authorities and schools accountable through performance indicators have changed the nature of the relationship between the national and subnational levels (provinces and regions, intermediate governments and municipalities). With joint provision and collaborative activity, actors may ‘wear a range of hats’, which can make it difficult to discern who is accountable for what, when, and to whom (Romzek, 2011[2]).

At the same time, parents and other stakeholders join government authorities in education decision making. Relationships between stakeholders and decision makers are increasingly dynamic and open to negotiation. The various actors, such as policy makers at various levels, parents, and teachers, have varying perspectives on problems. Interpretations of the reality differ, and so do expectations and preferred solutions. Information is now more widely gathered than ever before, and while the growing availability of information allows new insights and approaches to shape education, it also prompts new demands and uncertainties.

Ministries of education nevertheless remain responsible for ensuring high quality, efficient, equitable and innovative education at the national level. OECD research identified six interdependent domains of strategic education governance to help government authorities manage the dynamism and complexity of today’s education systems while steering a clear course towards established goals. Conditioning each other, these six domain are accountability, capacity, knowledge governance, stakeholder involvement, strategic thinking and a whole-of-system perspective (Figure 2.1).

Accountability pertains to organising who renders an account to whom and for what an account is rendered, and shaping incentives and disincentives for behaviour. In context of reduced hierarchical control and diverse local challenges and contexts, local discretion is central to respond to students’ and other stakeholders’ diverse needs. At the same time, limiting fragmentation helps to improve learning from each other and pursuing common goals (Blanchenay and Burns, 2016[3]; Burns, Köster and Fuster, 2016[4]). Accountability plays a central role in providing the space and incentives to learn and improve practice (Köster and Krämer, forthcoming[5]).

The domain of capacity pertains to ensuring decision makers, organisations and systems have the adequate resources and capabilities to fulfil their roles and tasks. Resources pertain to financial and human resources, as well as time and material resources, such as technical equipment. The distribution of responsibilities and knowledge across governance levels and diverse local contexts create specific concerns around ensuring capacity. This pertains centrally to capacity for policy making at sub-central levels of governance and capacity for implementation and evaluation (Blanchenay and Burns, 2016[3]). In addition, diverse local contexts and stakeholders with distinct capacity legacies render centrally identifying needs and building capacity inefficient. Horizontal and collaborative approaches to building capacity promise efficiency gains (Burns, Köster and Fuster, 2016[4]).

Knowledge governance pertains to stimulating the production of relevant knowledge and promoting its use in decision making. Knowledge governance takes an important role in enabling actors to respond to developments, align their activities, learn and improve practice, and identify and address individual, organisational and systemic capacity gaps. This relates to producing adequate and comprehensive evidence, mobilising evidence for convenient use, stimulating a culture of evidence use, and nurturing evidence-related capabilities (Langer, Tripney and Gough, 2016[6]; Hess and Ostrom, 2007[7]).

Stakeholder involvement pertains to involving the perspectives and demands of stakeholders effectively and efficiently in policy and governance. With less direct hierarchical control, decentralised decision making and knowledge, and greater influence of stakeholders, policy requires support of a wide range of stakeholders. Integrating stakeholders’ knowledge and perspectives is central in adapting policies to local contexts, legacies and demands. Engaging stakeholders can foster sustainable change by promoting ownership, trust, and mobilising legitimacy for policy (Colgan, Rochford and Burke, 2016[9]; Pierre and Peters, 2005[10]).

Strategic thinking pertains to balancing short-term priorities with long-term perspectives, and adapting strategies to new knowledge. Education governance faces changing contexts, new knowledge emerges from a broad range of sources, and demands and preferences change. In consequence, effective policy strategies emerge and evolve (Mason, 2016[11]; Snyder, 2013[12]). With diverse stakeholders involved in governance, decentralised responsibilities and distributed knowledge, policy making requires strategic thinking and requisite capacity at all levels of the system. Strategic thinking includes building a common vision for the education system that incorporates various perspectives of stakeholders across the system. It includes practices to adapt strategies and goals as contexts change and new knowledge emerges and to coordinate action and balancing tensions (Frankowski et al., 2018[13]; Burns and Köster, 2016[14]; OECD, 2019[15]; Burns, Köster and Fuster, 2016[4]).

Adopting a whole-of-system perspective pertains to adopting perspectives reaching beyond individual realms of responsibility to coordinate across decision makers, governance levels and policies. With often informal interdependence and collaborative activity, isolated interventions may prompt adverse effects elsewhere in the system; synergies between various parts of the system may not be realised; and fragmentation of policy approaches can produce inefficiencies (Colgan, Rochford and Burke, 2016[9]). A whole-of-system perspective seeks to align policies, stakeholders' roles and responsibilities across the system. It can help moderating tensions between priorities – e.g. risk-avoidance and innovation, consensus building and making difficult choices – and identifying and developing synergies (Burns, Köster and Fuster, 2016[4]). Communicating the successes of a whole-of-system perspective can help establish legitimacy and mobilise stakeholder support for collaborative approaches (Colgan, Rochford and Burke, 2016[9]).


[3] Blanchenay, P. and T. Burns (2016), “Policy experimentation in complex education systems”, in Burns, T. and F. Köster (eds.), Governing Education in a Complex World, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264255364-10-en.

[14] Burns, T. and F. Köster (eds.) (2016), Governing Education in a Complex World, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264255364-en.

[4] Burns, T., F. Köster and M. Fuster (2016), Education Governance in Action: Lessons from Case Studies, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264262829-en.

[9] Colgan, A., S. Rochford and K. Burke (2016), Implementing public service reform Messages from the literature, Centre for Effective Services, Dublin, http://www.effectiveservices.org (accessed on 5 October 2017).

[13] Frankowski, A. et al. (2018), “Dilemmas of central governance and distributed autonomy in education”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 189, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/060260bf-en.

[7] Hess, C. and E. Ostrom (eds.) (2007), Understanding Knowledge as a Commons - From Theory to Practice, MIT Press, Cambridge, London, http://mitpress.mit.edu.

[5] Köster, F. and C. Krämer (forthcoming), “A practical framework for meaningful accountability in education (working title)”, OECD Education Working Papers, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[6] Langer, L., J. Tripney and D. Gough (2016), The Science of Using Science - Researching the Use of Research Evidence in Decision-Making, EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London, http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Default. (accessed on 15 January 2018).

[11] Mason, M. (2016), “Complexity theory and systemic change in education governance”, in Burns, T. and F. Köster (eds.), Governing Education in a Complex World, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264255364-4-en.

[15] OECD (2019), Improving School Quality in Norway: The New Competence Development Model, Implementing Education Policies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/179d4ded-en.

[1] Osborne, S. (2006), “The New Public Governance?”, Public Management Review, Vol. 8/3, pp. 377-387, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14719030600853022.

[10] Pierre, J. and B. Peters (2005), Governing Complex Societies: Trajectories and Scenarios, Palgrave Macmillan, Nw York.

[2] Romzek, B. (2011), “The tangled web of accountability in contracting networks: The case of welfare reform”, in Dubnick, M. and H. Frederickson (eds.), Accountable Government : Problems and Promises, Routledge, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uts/detail.action?docID=1900108.

[8] Shewbridge, C. and F. Köster (2019), Strategic Education Governance - Project Plan and Organisational Framework, http://www.oecd.org/education/ceri/SEG-Project-Plan-org-framework.pdf.

[12] Snyder, S. (2013), “The simple, the complicated, and the complex: Educational reform through the lens of complexity theory”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 96, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5k3txnpt1lnr-en.

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