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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The new Cohesion Policy as a case-study in Orwellian language?

Having made a casual reference a few days ago to a rather superficial paper on EC Structural Funds (with which I have a tangential link in my current Bulgarian project), I was understandably attracted by the title of one of the LSE lecture series - Redesigning the World's Largest Development Programme: EU cohesion policy - by the Special Adviser to the current EC Regional Commissioner (Austrian Johannes Hahn) – one Phil McCann, a Professor of Economic Geography. Particularly because it also offered a 91 slide presentation.
Before I started to listen to it, I checked on Googlescholar to see whether McCann had perhaps not written an article on the subject - which I could read in a fifth of the time necessary to stick with the lecture. Unfortunately McCann’s papers are highly academic and almost impossible to read – eg here.
The guy seems very chatty in person but the more he gets into his subject, the more naïve he (and his type) seems. The academic discipline of geography has always seemed, for me, one of the best of the social sciences with its strong multidisciplinary bias. So (and from the title) I had hoped to get an insight into the intellectual and political aspects of the european-wide discussions of the past 2 years about the future shape of this central piece of the “European venture” (now almost level pegging spending with the wasteful CAP).
What I got was a frightening Orwellian presentation of the latest fashionable EC phrases. I have still to read all the relevant documentation which has poured from the EC presses in the past 2 years (and to which I do brief justice in the sections below). All I know is that the key adviser to the Regional Commissioner seems to know nothing about policy analysis; seems completely taken in by words and phrases; and seems blissfully ignorant about the various reasons for implementation failure. I do concede that he was speaking to a student and graduate academic audience - and that this may be one reason why he focussed on words rather than realities.
Discussions on the future of EU Cohesion Policy - €347 billion between 2007 and 2013 – were launched amost 3 years ago.
Two key documents which appeared almost simultaneously in April 2009 have served as a basis for discussions on regional policy reform: first a reflection paper by Danuta Hübner, who had just demitted office as commissioner in charge of regional policy (from Nov 2004) and amost immediately became chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development (!!)
The other document was a report she had commissed - and which was drafted by Fabrizio Barca, director-general at the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Both papers categorically rejected any attempt to renationalise Cohesion Policy - which was the thrust of the Open Europe Report I had mentioned earlier in the week.

Barca’s report, in particular, pays homage to the legitimacy of a policy, which he considers essential to pursuing European goals. The policy, says the report, must serve two objectives: development of territories based on local/regional possibilities; and improvements in social welfare (combating social exclusion). Like Hübner, Barca suggests placing territories at the centre of EU strategy. Both papers considered that EU intervention must be refocused on a few key objectives.
The report's recommendations for reform seem typical in their language of such documents. They are based on ten “pillars” and I would ask the reader – as a mind-game – to try reversing the phrases to check for how much meaning they contain -
1: Concentration on core priorities (how many of us would suggest focussing on inessentials??)
Dr Barca says the EU should concentrate around 65% of its funding on three or four core priorities, with the share varying between Member States and regions according to needs and strategies. Criteria for the allocation of funding would remain much as now (i.e. based on GDP per capita). One or two core priorities should address social inclusion to allow for the development of a "territorialised social agenda".
2: A new strategic framework
The strategic dialogue between the Commission and Member States (or Regions in some cases) should be enhanced and based on a European Strategic Development Framework, setting out clear-cut principles, indicators and targets for assessing performance.
3: A new contractual relationship, implementation and reporting
The Commission and Member States should develop a new type of contractual agreement (a National Strategic Development Contract), focused on performance and verifiable commitments.
4: Strengthened governance for core priorities
The Commission should establish a set of “conditionalities” for national institutions as a requirement for allocating funding to specific priorities and should assess progress in meeting targets.
5: Promoting additional, innovative and flexible spending (how many of us would suggest inflexible spending????)
The Commission should strengthen the principle of "additionality", which ensures that Member States do not substitute national with EU expenditure, by establishing a direct link with the Stability and Growth Pact. A contractual commitment is needed to ensure that measures are innovative and add value.
6: Promoting experimentation and mobilising local actors (ditto)
The Commission and Member States should encourage experimentation, and a better balance between creating an incentive for local involvement in policies and preventing the policy from being “hijacked” by interest groups.
7: Promoting the learning process: a move towards prospective impact evaluation
Better design and implementation of methods for estimating what outcomes would have been had intervention not taken place would improve understanding of what works where, and exert a disciplinary effect when actions are designed.
8: Strengthening the role of the Commission as a centre of competence (as distinct from a centre of incompetence?)
Develop more specialised expertise in the Commission with greater coordination between Directorate-Generals to match the enhanced role and discretion of the Commission in the policy. This would imply significant investment in human resources and organisational changes.
9: Addressing financial management and control (as distinct from ignoring them???)
Achieve greater efficiency in administering the Structural Funds by pursuing the ongoing simplification agenda and considering other means of reducing costs and the burden imposed on the Commission, the Member States and beneficiaries.
10: Reinforcing the high-level political system of checks and balances
A stronger system of checks and balances between the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council, through the creation of a formal Council for Cohesion Policy. Encourage an ongoing debate on the content, results and impact of the Cohesion Policy.
Such an approach argues for a Cohesion Policy which continues to address all EU regions, both Barca and Hübner say. Pawel Samecki, who succeeded Hübner as commissioner (but for one year only until replaced by an Austrian who is contesting accusations of plagiarism in his doctorate)), follows the same logic. Since both (or all three) defend the need to concentrate the greatest share of funds on less developed regions, where GDP per inhabitant would remain the reference indicator for prioritising funding, we are no longer talking about a ‘Sapir-style’ scenario. This was named after the Belgian economist André Sapir who, in 2003, drew up a highly controversial report for the Commission, which recommended a Cohesion Policy almost exclusively for regions in the new member states. For the Commission, a regional policy addressed to all is especially necessary since challenges, such as globalisation and climate change, affect the whole of the European Union – the EU15 as much as more recent members – at a time when national exchequers are stretched. There is no doubt, however, that some member states will call on the Sapir scenario in discussions on the new Cohesion Policy
During her mandate, Hübner frequently insisted on the need to strengthen the Commission’s strategic role in defining the policy to be implemented. The same idea is taken up in the Barca report. This envisages a seamless process starting with a real political debate and leading to adoption of a European framework and signature of “strategic development contracts” between the Commission, member states and, possibly, regions. In the Barca scenario, regional and local authorities would be more widely involved than today, which the Commission is also said to support. These contracts would formally commit signatories to a strategy, results and follow-up reports.
A genuine assessment for monitoring the performance of programmes and results would also need to be established – something Barca considers is lacking today. In her reflection paper, Hübner talks of setting up a “culture of monitoring and evaluation”. Commissioner Samecki also highlighted the need to concentrate further on results and performance. In this, they are slavishly following the fashion of today - and that part of McCann's presentation which dealt with this issue was positively embarrassing in its naivety and failure to relate to the wider and highly critical literature about performance management.

One of the problems about EC policy-making is that, despite (perhaps because of??) the emphasis on transparency and consultation, the processes are conducted by insiders - many of them paid by the EC itself (academics and not a few journalists). Outsiders like myself are discouraged by the language, complexity and sheer volume of paper. It would be interesting to spend some time reading the relevant stuff on Structural Funds (regional policy, social funds, coherence et al) and explore some basic questions about Value Added!!!

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