Public administrations at regional and national level in Europe are strained in various ways:
- economic stagnation while globalisation increases competitive pressures;
- fiscal constraints while citizens and stakeholders demand better involvement and results;
- rapid technological change while societies need solutions that tackle both their local needs and are commercially viable.
Dealing with this conundrum of complex expectations and realities is a vital public task. The European Commission has a powerful instrument that can tackle these challenges: the cohesion policy supporting regional development. Even more importantly, this instrument is co-managed together with regional administrations that are best suited to identify their development needs. Yet, European citizens have often seen the implementation of EU cohesion and regional policy as a prominent example of maladministration and ineffective spending. What can be the best European solution for many of the contemporary socio-economic challenges is perceived by many, rightly or wrongly, as part of the problem and not part of the solution.
To remedy this perception and improve EU investments for innovation and economic growth, the European Commission established the Smart Specialisation (S3) Platform in 2011. A small team of around thirty applied researchers, based at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Seville, have been supporting regional and national administrations to prepare and implement transparent and participatory innovation strategies that address societal challenges. This new practice of public administration is called ‘smart specialisation’ because it asks governments to duly justify in which domains they want to concentrate their efforts and funding. In the past years, the project has provided hands-on guidance, methodologies and analysis with a view to building capacities in public administrations to be more focused in setting priorities for public investments. Our work builds on a new legal requirement that defines preconditions for disbursing European Regional Development Funds.
To comply with this new rule, around 120 national and regional administrations had to prepare and adopt research and innovation strategies for smart specialisation (RIS3) that embody an evidence-based prioritisation of public investments through a highly participatory approach with stakeholders. Innovation policies have important future consequences for employment, competitiveness and well-being. The project has been supporting public administrations to reconcile their immediate development needs with the longer-term development of their territories.
Three novel measures have been employed to support administrations to navigate through the conundrum of challenges and expectations, and to design appropriate solutions:
- Participatory methods are used that bring together policymakers and administrators to discuss their strategies, intervention logics and instruments based on similar challenges they are facing. In more than 120 interactive events involving multiple stakeholders, we have brought together local, national and European stakeholders and experts to jointly discuss their development priorities and plans. Our project and platform was conceived as an innovation meant to trigger innovation by focusing on community-building and mutual learning across all sectors.
- This novel approach has also triggered the launch of new innovation partnerships. Inter-regional collaboration is supported by disseminating information through new and comprehensive open data tools. The team developed a participatory online platform to collect relevant information on all public investment priorities across the EU to support innovative projects. Together with policymakers in regional and national administrations, these data were collected and verified in a partly crowd-sourced way.
- Good practices that illustrate what is possible given budgetary and administrative constraints are recognised and disseminated. Most administrations working with the project are eager to effectively prioritise actions, yet often lack guiding examples to learn from. The project has become a knowledge hub on innovation policy documents. The team has provided binding feedback to improve more than 180 local development strategies that are linked to an investment in innovation of more than EUR 35 billion through the EU’s cohesion policy.
Political endorsements from the European Parliament, the European Council and the Committee of the Regions have repeatedly confirmed the value of this support for making better EU investments in local development. Also, inside the Commission this work has triggered new joint initiatives and dialogues across several Directorates-General. By streamlining the participatory methods across organisations and enforcing a more transparent justification for public investments, policymaking has been brought closer to citizens and local stakeholders. Positive media coverage underscores how this approach to local development has enhanced collaboration between businesses and the public sector, with significant potential for employment growth.