As a short history, the CENEX (Centres and Networks of Excellence) concept was introduced in the Palermo DGINS in September 2002 with an objective to gain from expertise within the ESS organizations in order to develop specific actions which would benefit the whole ESS system. A Task Force on Centres of Excellence (CENEX) was installed to make operational proposals for implementing the concept. The report of the Task Force was in the agenda of the 55th meeting of the SPC (2005). Topics discussed in this context included the procedures for the selection and implementation of CENEX projects and the evaluation of the projects. It was proposed that project proposals should be well worked out before any decision-making on financial support by Eurostat. The SPC should express its opinion on the project proposals as a basis for a financial decision. Concerning the evaluation of CENEX projects, it was proposed that Eurostat should be responsible for the formal evaluationand the SPC should express its opinion with regard to the substantial evaluation,taking into account the position of the relevant Eurostat-working groups. It also should be assured that the CENEX proposals are in line with the Work Programmes. (Report from the Task Force on Centres of Excellence, 9 February 2005, see CPS 2005/55/4 EN.)
The Task Force report also included a proposal for the Criteria for the selection of a topic for CENEX project:
- This topic is a priority for the development of the ESS.
- Relevance to the objectives of the Statistical Programmes.
- CENEX seems to be the best operational approach to achieve the planned results (cost effectiveness).
- Contribution to innovation and knowledge sharing and harmonisation.
- Potential to achieve integration and promote excellence beyond its membership (Partnership).
- Sustainability of the results in terms of their application.
The SPC favoured the launching of CENEX pilots and the development of proposals to implement the concept after the pilots were evaluated. The first pilot CENEX project was on Statistical Disclosure Control (SDC). The project of eight participating NSIs and a university was coordinated by CBS (The Netherlands) and was evaluated very positive.
The SPC discussed on “Report of the pilot CENEX and reflection on the continuation of these actions” in its 61st Meeting (2007, see CPS 2007/61/6/EN). Based on a proposal of an internal Eurostat reflection group, the concept of CENEX was replaced by the expression ESSnet (Collaborative ESS Networks). The ESSnet activity was restricted to the ESS partnership. The restriction was motivated by three elements: Flexibility in financial instruments, the development of partnership projects within the ESS, and the favourable impact on the relations with the ESS members.
It was stated that “Eurostat shall ensure the adequacy of the selection and award procedures and the proper use of the financial instruments, in line with the Financial Regulation and the implementation rules. Eurostat will provide an internal facilitation in order to ensure the adequacy and coherence of ESSnet projects, to assist in the preparation and to give internal support in the execution phase.” (CPS 2007/61/6/EN).
The 7 criteria for an ESSnet were agreed (slightly revised from the previous list):
- Involves several partners and results diffused to non participating NSAs.
- Focus on issues that answer to a European interest (excludes projects that do not contribute to the quality of ESS statistics).
- Compatible with the 5 year programme.
- Cost effective (excludes projects that have not a sufficient financial investment and where there is a duplication with other initiatives in the ESS).
- Knowledge sharing, innovation and harmonisation.
- Sustainable (The project should be sustainable beyond its duration; adequate measures should be foreseen at national level).
- Actions can only be carried out by ESS organisations.
It was stated that the eligible ESSnet actions should be limited to those that present a genuine European interest, excluding national or bilateral initiatives and pure statistical production activities. There was not much said on the possible output of an ESSnet project. The report writes: “The outputs to be expected from an ESSnet can be varied depending on the subject matter but they can involve work on methods with subsequent production of guidelines, software tools, transfer of knowledge, common questionnaires, …”.
There are detailed materials in the SPC meeting report on types of collaboration, ESSnet actors and roles, dissemination and reporting of results, management of a partnership, financial instruments, the establishment of the ESSnet process, and ESSnet facilitation.
- Complications possibly rising in the definition and selection of suitable ESSnet actions, resulting e.g. from different national interests among the ESS members.
- Long term coordination of the cost-effectiveness of ESSnet actions.
- Effective dissemination, exploitation and implementation of results of an ESSnet project within the ESS system.
- ESSnet Project oriented, wherethe final output is clearly described and fits into the yearly statistical programme, the scope is defined and the project is limited in its duration: 1 or 2 years, and
- Objective oriented, which isan extension of the "project oriented" option, where the scope is broader and the work programme has to be redefined when specific steps are completed. Such a project could expand beyond the time frame of one or two years and it is necessary to establish a longer term partnership with participating organisations.
It was stated that the Yearly Statistical Programme should include the ESSnet projects planned, and the specific projects should be included in the corresponding themes of the programme. Eurostat was obliged to develop the yearly ESSnet plan and present it at the SPC. Proposals for that achieve sufficient support are to be sent to Eurostat. Eurostat would evaluate the proposals, accept, reject or request improvements.
Eurostat presented the first ESSnet plan to the 66th SPC meeting (2008, see CPS 2008/66/4/EN). The plan presented eight ESSnet projects for launching in 2008/2009 and eight candidate projects for 2009/2010. Now, a list of expected output of each project was introduced with the following eight items:
- Shared software
- Knowledge transfer
- New Methods
The ESSnet plan was discussed at the 1st meeting of the European Statistical System Committee (ESSC) in 2009, based on a “Report on ESSnet Projects 2008-2009 and ESSnet Plan 2010” presented by Eurostat (ESSC 2009/01/5 REV./EN). There were a number of changes in the set of ESSnet projects that was presented to the 66th SPC meeting. For example, it was noted that a number of projects were not reached the necessary level of maturity in terms of defining the actions to be launched or in the composition of the partnership.
In the list of ESSnet actions planned for 2009 there were two methodological cooperative development projects (Small Area Estimation andData integration), a project related to GIS (EU Grid), and two MEETS projects (MEETS on Linking of micro data on ICT usage and MEETS on Profiling of large and complex multinational enterprise groups), and Development of heat pumps statistics methodology.
In the list of ESSnet actions proposed for 2010 there were two methodological cooperative development projects (Data analysis and Developments and cooperative action in ESS methodology), an ICT focused Common reference environment project (CORA), a project on remote access to micro data, and a project on Automated Data Collection and Reporting in Accommodation Statistics.
A proposal on long-term ESSnet plans (2011 and beyond) was presented to the 1st ESSC. Four ESSnets were proposed for continuation and four new ESSnets were introduced. A list of 11 ESSnet projects of 2009-2010 was presented with expected output for each project.
In the risk assessment section, the following risks were identified: Risks are that proposals for ESSnet projects do not pass through the evaluation procedures. Another risk might be the delays in the processing of the proposals and contract, not allowing the budget commitment in time.
The next ESSnet plan was discussed at the 5th meeting of the ESSC in 2010 (ESSC 2010/05/8/EN). Now, the situation in the ESSnet scheme was changed, with respect to the extension in particular. The following quotation reflects the changed situation: “In view of the important number of projects forecasted for 2011, Eurostat decided to make a temporary pause in the development of new ESSnet projects in order to stand back and have a more detailed look at the results of ongoing projects”. An additional new factor probably affecting the revision of ESSnet plans was the recently launched Commission Communication on the reengineering of the business production process of the ESS (“Vision” document on the production method of EU statistics: a vision for the next decade, COM(2009) 404). The “Vision” document refers explicitly to the use of ESSnet projects as part of “collaborative networks” and underpins the strengths of such an approach in implementing the vision.
The previous ESSC comments on the ESSnet procedures on information, dissemination and the number of projects presented, and the possible fragmentation of topics and work, were referred. Eurostat presented a set of corrective actions, including arrangements to improve information on ESSnet technical, administrative and financial procedures, to develop an ESSnet communication and dissemination platform and to improve ESSnet monitoring and assessment. For the last action, the following items were introduced:
- Systematic set up of a steering group for important projects.
- Final review following a standard process and template in order to verify that the initial objectives presented in the technical annex of the contract have been reached in accordance with the final financial statement.
- Arrangements for endorsement of results.
The status of a list of 31 ESSnet projects was presented, including 3 finished projects, 11 running projects, 10 projects under preparation, 3 cancelled projects, and 4 projects postponed to 2010.
A tentative classification of the projects was presented in the ESSC report:
- ESSnet methodology to cover specific elements of the GSBPM
- SDC, Small Area Estimation, Data Integration, etc.
- ESSnet standardisation
- ESSnet pilot, to test new surveys, new variables, new approaches, elaborate on new user requirement
- Culture, Decentralised access, Accommodation Statistics, Data collection for land use and land cover, Life Long Learning Accounts, etc.
- ESSnet Research – for longer term objectives and implementation of research results
- ESSnet transfer for broadening/adoption of ESSnet methods by ESS
Eurostat proposed a specific procedure for ESSnets of 2011, including the definition of evaluation criteria to each ESSnet project and benchmarking of the proposed 2011 projects towards the evaluation criteria. For 2011 and onwards, Eurostat will present a standard procedure to ESSC for discussion and validation together with the list of evaluation criteria.
In the risk assessment section, the following was stated: “Risks are that too many ESSnet projects are launched, overloading the involved Member States and diluting their impact and results.”This risk also was stated in the ESSC 9th Meeting (ESSC 2011/09/5/EN).
The ESSC 9th Meeting document (ESSC 2011/09/5/EN) includes a report entitled “REPORT ON ESSnet PROJECTS 2010-2011 AND ESSnet PLAN 2012”. The section on ESSnet monitoring and assessment presents the evaluation criteria for ESSnet projects in a compact form, as follows:
- Quality of the project proposal, in the sense of fit for purpose.
- Impact, defined as the potential contribution to generate knowledge relevant to ESS production. Impact should be evaluated in relation with the domain of application, acknowledged needs in this domain and productivity gains for the ESS.
- Operationalisation, defined as the project's actual impact on production of ESS statistics. In particular modalities and conditions for the use of the results, standardization potentialities and benefits should be considered.
The report informs that the criteria have been developed in cooperation with DIME. It is also written that “The evaluation criteria … are also the basis for continuous monitoring and ex-post evaluation. … The criteria are operationalised through a set of indicators and are used in the current and future evaluation procedures”. Operationalisation of the criteria to a manageable set of indicators, which are comparable over projects and time, must be welcomed as a very important initiative. The Self-assessment section (Annex 3) of the ESSnet Plan 2012 presents an evaluation of the proposed ESSnet projects for 2012 by using a set of operationalised indicators.