Peer review is a useful tool because during the process countries systematically exchange information, attitudes and views on policy decisions and their application. This dialogue can be the basis for further co-operation, through, for example, the adoption of new policy guidelines, recommendations or even the negotiation of legal undertakings.
Peer review can also serve as an important capacity-building instrument, since it is a mutual learning process in which best practices are exchanged. This is true not only for the country under review, but also for other countries, especially those acting as lead examiners.
In many contexts, the “soft law” nature of peer review can prove better suited to encouraging and enhancing compliance than a traditional enforcement mechanism. It can take into account a country’s policy objectives, and look at its performance in a historical and political context. Peer review can therefore assess and encourage trends toward compliance even among relatively poorly performing countries, while noting negative trends in countries that have a higher performance record.
But for a review to be effective, it must meet certain conditions.
One is value sharing – participating countries must share the same views on the standards or criteria against which to evaluate performance. A strong common understanding on these elements will prevent uncertainty or backtracking during the process.
At the same time, a peer review can function properly only if there is an adequate level of commitment by the participating countries – and that means not only supplying enough resources to carry it out, but also being fully engaged in the process, whether reviewing or being reviewed.
Mutual trust: since peer review is, by its nature, a co-operative, non-adversarial process, mutual trust is important for its success. While the peer review process itself can contribute to confidence building, a large degree of trust and value sharing among the participants should be present from the beginning to facilitate the disclosure of data, information and documentation which are essential to the process.
And last, but by no means least, the credibility of the peer review process is essential to its effectiveness, and to its added value in comparison with government reports or consultants’ recommendations. There is a strong link between the credibility of the process and its capacity of influence. An independent Secretariat, designated examining countries and a multilateral committee process all help ensure this credibility. The involvement of the reviewed country in the process and its ownership of the outcome is the best guarantee that it will ultimately endorse the final report and implement its recommendations. However this involvement should not go so far as to endanger the fairness and the objectivity of the review. For example, the country under review should not be permitted to veto all or part of the final report.
With all these factors in place, peer review can serve as a stimulus for improvement. Through the accompanying effect of peer pressure – both persuasion by other countries and the stimulus of domestic public opinion – peer review can act as a catalyst for improved government performance.