Pulling things together – what works in regional policy coordination?

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Policy coordination is a perennial regional development challenge. Policymakers need to address asymmetries of information between and across levels of government; ‘silo’ approaches in government ministries, departments and agencies; unstable, insufficient regional policy budgets; contrasting policy objectives and targets; and, mismatches between functional areas targeted by regional policy and administrative boundaries.

Across Europe, governments have introduced various initiatives to strengthen regional policy coordination. These range from basic cooperation with limited, informal exchange of information towards integration, involving joint, participative decision making and the pooling of budgets and resources to achieve collective goals. Coordination efforts can take place at every stage of the policy process from agenda-setting to implementation.

A range of coordination mechanisms can be identified in regional policy systems, each with their own strengths and challenges. Constitutional, legislative or regulatory provisions can be used to facilitate coordination. These are important for coherence, particularly alongside more ‘active’ approaches such as coordination through organisational mechanisms to foster joint working, horizontally or vertically. Ministries, dedicated committees or agencies can act as boundary-spanning structures but it is important that they have sufficient legal competences, political status and capacity to perform this coordinating role. Strategic frameworks strengthen coordination through setting joint objectives, specifying the aims of shared policies and determining which objectives take priority in the event of incompatibility. In this case, a key challenge lies in developing consensus and securing commitment from relevant sectoral and territorial stakeholders.
Coordination of policy instruments is being pursued through the pooling of funding streams, dedicated budgets for coordinated actions, the implementation of action plans with a mix of instruments, and the creation of agreements or contracts that commit actors from different sectors or administrative levels to joint working. This type of coordination involves transaction costs and requires finding a balance between a range of factors: territorial and thematic scope and focus; budgetary contributions and policy competences; the use of incentives; and conditions to ensure joint working.

The choice of appropriate coordination mechanism depends on the specific characteristics of regional policy systems.
However, successful approaches employ combinations of regulatory, structural, strategic and operational tools. Success also depends on finding the optimal combination of functional territorial focus (e.g. city-region, metropolitan area, etc.), administrative jurisdiction (national, regional, urban, local), thematic scope (a wide range of policy areas or more targeted focus), and instrument mix (tax breaks, budget envelopes, grants, contracts etc.). Finally, a key factor in the success of policy coordination is trust-building. The creation of stable coordination arrangements that create scope for regular interaction, including through ‘face to face’ meetings, is important in ensuring that stakeholders have the will and capacity to fulfil their commitments.

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