EU / European Comission / European programmes / Regional development

Regional capacity building: new skills for empowered local and regional authorities

The Cold War promoted a new scheme for international alliances, pacts, and organisations. It simplified the nature of reality, being on this or that side of the Iron Curtain implied a full set of international orientations.

The dismantling of the Soviet Union and Communist block governments opened up the chance to build new international relationships, from general alliances to purpose-oriented organisations, think tanks, and macroregional associations.

With China entering the WTO in 1997 and the consequent world market expansion, the economic links multiplied.

The European Union (back then the European Economic Community – EEC) received a new impulse with the Single European Act (1987), and its development through the Maastricht Treaty.

The legal structure, combined with the principle of subsidiarity (the organizing principle stating that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority) and the enhancing of EU regional policy meant that some brand new competences were assigned to regional governments at continental level, together with an unprecedented amount of funding that needed to be managed. (Boris Meggiorin – The mirror game: multi-level governance and legitimacy, 2012).

The challenge of empowerment

The recipients of the benefits – and responsibilities – of the recent regional empowerment are mainly the local and regional authorities. The pace and the impacts of the process are widely studied by the European Commission and research think tanks since 30 years ago, nevertheless the actual role of skills of public officers had an ancillary role in the debate so far.

How can an effective management of funding be ensured without an adequate training for the public officers having to deal with extra budget to be assigned under EU regulations? The more mature and accountable local administrations led the way to the process, in terms of sound allocation and management of the resources. The rate of absorption for structural and European Regional Development ERDF funds varied across the continent but more on individual regional basis rather than on national level.

The differences have been so important that even general press, usually recalcitrant in treating this kind of issues, have been outlining the subject, such as in Italy and in Romania 

A possible landscape for the slow performance depends on the lack of ability by local and regional politicians in reading the challenge. It relies on the missed update of the public administration usual work-flow, is one of the reasons why several European regions faced and keep facing a poor performance in the allocation of funding. So one factor is the reduced investment in the training for the staff actually making the liaison with the final beneficiaries. Another element is that the ERDF (and more generally structural funds) get into the local political game when the obstacles are mainly technical. The overestimation of the regional political influence over European priorities makes believe that technical issues of project applications may be bypassed thanks to the local political support. By the time that this stream gets unveiled during an individual project application process, the approval and the implementation of the project gets delayed. In this way, several local governments become weak intermediaries, while the general public is unaware of the matter, reducing the chances for outer pressures.

The European Union is increasingly aware of the topic, providing an improved framework to drive the allocation of resources, such as the Regional Smart Specialisation Strategy, which represents a guideline (and a pedagogic approach as well) to provide coherence among the more than 270 regions of the continent. In the meanwhile, a performance clause applies now to the Managing authorities of the European Regional Development Fund and the structural funds in general. Additional tools include the Regional Capacity Building Initiative, for structural funds and other EU programmes (such the neighbouring policy). The biggest share of resources for capacity building is assigned to the officers of the neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, these kind of actions should take in account also the challenges faced by regional authorities of seasoned member states. The results of these improvements will be fully estimated at the end of the programming period, after 2020.

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