This paper assesses whether and how Structural Funds (SF) act as an ‘agent of change’ in the policy and practice of regional and local development. What is being done through the Funds that would not otherwise be done, where and how this ‘operational innovation’ is being generated, and which aspects of the SF approach are most valued? Specifically, it considers changes arising from SF mobilisation of stakeholders and beneficiaries. Theinfluence of SF can be categorised according the effects on mind-set, policy content and practice. These three categories are not mutually exclusive and, indeed, they can be mutually reinforcing. In appraising the drivers of change, the paper highlights four modes, hierarchically organised from passive to proactive. The sequencing of change is important. Passive abidance with regulations andminimal adaptation can progressively transform into proactive embracing of SF approaches as ameans to introduce beneficial innovations.
Key factors to enable this upward trend are ownership andembeddedness, which the SF foster through partnership and operational arrangements. However, it isparamount to achieve a more reasonable balance between a focus on compliance and a focus on thedesired end-result (i.e. the societal ‘change’ that the SF programmes, through the projects that theyfund, intend to deliver). Different types of actors may require different modes of mobilisation andsupport if they are to contribute to change. However, regulatory rigidity and focus on compliance can act as a deterrent for stakeholders and potential beneficiaries to engage with the policy, andundermine innovation. Where the SF are discontinued, a key challenge will be to retain the beneficial changes in mind-sets, policy focus and implementation practices. There are at least three ways tosupport this process: institutionalisation through legislation; communication of the benefits; involvement of the widest range of actors and their development through targeted capacity building activities.
Looking to the future, it is important to recognise what would be lost without the SF and thatany criticism about what does not work in Cohesion policy should be placed into context. Forexample, while it is recognised that compliance-orientation and administrative complexity hamper theSF’ value for money and continuing innovation potential, and that there is a need for flexibility andsimplification, it is also acknowledged that the shared management model has proven valuable andthat the participative approaches inbuilt in the new instruments do reinforce the aforementioned senseof ownership that is so essential to make improvements last.