Some reflections on regional cooperation, consultants, the usual suspects, effective project PR, bloggers and TRUST 2.0
October 28, 2008
Just came back from the INTERREG IVC Forum in Lille. The immense and increasing popularity of this funding mechanism for interregional cooperation was graphically demonstrated by the first call of this programme, resulting in piles of project applications. More than 400 applications mobilising nearly 5000 actors across Europe were received and the programme Secretariat in Lille did a hell of a job to tackle this logistical nightmare and assess these projects so that the Member States in the Monitoring Committee of the programme could take appropriately informed funding decisions.
Much of this popularity is clearly based on the growing interest of regions and localities in getting involved in EU wide cooperation activities, which, by the way, proves the success of EU Regional Policy in mobilising a huge number of actors. But much of it also seems consultant-driven, showing that a veritable industry, providing jobs and growth :-), has sprung up around these programmes. However, involvement of consultants is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact EU regional policy could not do without them.
Their brains, their talent and their energy are clearly often needed, particularly by less experienced regions but also by those regions and regional development actors that do not have sufficient time and human resources to invest in project development, to navigate the hugely complex administrative environment and to clearly structure, plan and implement the project. We can clearly observe a professionalization of this industry in Europe driven by a higher demand on quality, ever more scrutiny and fierce competition for project funds, which will hopefully drive out the few black sheep that one keeps coming across when doing project monitoring.
We can also see some clever business models thriving on the back of regional policy. One example for this is ‘Regional Review’, which was present with a stand at the exhibition space in Lille. This is a European regional policy magazine published by the private publisher, “Parliament Magazine” group. Its sales staff target Structural Funds programme managing authorities and project partners systematically by email or phone offering ad space in the magazine. The ads are usually paid from publicly co-financed programme and project budgets. An endorsement and a cooperation agreements with the Committee of the Regions and an advisory panel including EU parliamentarians insinuate a quasi official status, which strengthen their sales position vis-a-vis this primary target group, which is led to believe that an ad in the magazine will substantially enhance their standing with the Brussels policy community.
Personally, I do not believe in the effectiveness of paid advertisement for enhancing project PR in general, but also concerning “Regional Review” in particular. But I wonder why more established information providers do not step into this market, which is potentially huge given the hundreds of programmes and thousands of projects funded by the Structural Funds each year.
While working at INTERREG IIIC, the forerunner programme of IVC, as Communication Manager, I kept telling our project promoters that their money would be better invested in getting professional support from a PR agency that can help in planning and carrying out effective project PR and media strategies reaching the right target groups, instead of paying for paid ads in magazines.
I would also highly recommend blogging to all INTERREG project leaders. Blogs are a clearly a cost-effective (in fact it is free) and stimulating way to disseminate information, report about project activities and achievements, invite others outside the project partnership to join and comment, encourage peer review and build online communities of regional practitioners and in time, establish a truly European communication space.
O.K. I got carried away a little here, so coming back to INTERREG IVC, whether consultant driven or not, some ‘irrational exuberance’ was observed during the past call, with some institutions involved in as many as 40 different project applications. Needless to say that such behaviour raises the suspicion of programme authorities, given the requirement that projects should ideally be developed jointly by all project partners together.
This is why it has now been decided by the INTERREG IVC project authorities to limit participation to max. 5 project applications per call. While this new rule should be helpful to reduce the tsunami of applications faced by the programme authorities for each consecutive call, increase the commitment and seriousness of project partners, enable true interregional added value and make sure that money is not always allocated to the same ‘usual suspects’, which presumably finance the greatest part of their activities out of EU budgets, it also underlines the need for ‘trust’.
If as a region or regional development actor you have to limit yourselves in that way, it is important you sign up to the right projects and know the people you are dealing with in advance, know you can rely on their expertise and correct behaviour. That’s what any serious local development actor should do anyway. Networks such as ERRIN, which is funded by membership contributions and invests in what I would call “TRUST 2.0.”, help to establish that collective understanding and culture of cooperation and facilitate successful involvement in EU projects.Author : I-Blogger