Pulling things together? The perennial challenge of regional policy coordination

Coordination is a persistent regional policy challenge. The current focus on joined-up policy making spanning sectors, institutions and a range of socio-economic challenges further emphasises the need for coordination. But how can policy makers ‘pull things together’ in the face of conflicting policy goals, competing interests and power struggles between different levels of government?

Why are traditional, ‘rules based’ policy coordination no longer enough? Regional policy is no longer synonymous with the award of regional aid where coordination could be based on criteria ensuring standardised and stable implementation. More ‘active’ coordination measures are now necessary to support cross-sectoral and multi stakeholder participation. The German Regional ‘Joint Task’, for example, includes both mutually agreed legal frameworks between federal and Land levels and also ‘softer’ coordination activities supporting discussion on common interests.

How can key ‘boundary spanning’ structures be made effective? ‘Super Ministries’ incorporating regional and sectoral policy portfolios, Cabinet and inter-ministerial committees and task forces operate in a range of countries to enhance policy coordination. Such structures can play a crucial role but their effectiveness relies on a political culture of information sharing, and clarity in terms of roles and responsibilities. Such bodies need to be supported with sufficient legal competence and political status.

Are strategy-based coordination frameworks just symbolic wish lists? Regional development strategies can provide a coordination framework for sectoral and territorial policies with common objectives, commitments and tools. The fundamental challenge is to ensure ‘buy in’ from stakeholders with different priorities and define concrete ‘missions’ to motivate cross-sectoral involvement. Cross-cutting working teams can not only define such missions but also build trust and help to evolve reciprocal working relationships – often the most valuable outcome of the process.

Can the regional policy budgeting system be an incentive for more coordination policy making? Pooling resources in a dedicated budget ensures contributing actors have a tangible stake in coordination. Several European countries use transactional mechanisms such as contracts or deals, negotiated between different levels of government, as a means of coordinating implementation. Transaction costs (e.g. financial or administrative resources, time) are inevitably involved which can act as a disincentive. Policy makers must identify the most appropriate territorial and thematic coverage, stakeholder involvement and balance of incentives versus conditions.

Successful coordination requires a balance of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures tailored within the specific institutional and governance context. Rules based coordination, for example, is generally more suitable within federal structures while ‘super structures’ make more sense where regional policy has a comparatively high political statues and a substantial budget. All approaches have a range of benefits and drawbacks and finding the right balance to best enhance trust based and effective strategic coordination is challenging.

This blog is based on the study ‘Pulling things together – what works in regional policy coordination?’ by Martin Ferry undertaken for the European Regional Policy Research Consortium and was presented at the 40th Annual Conference in Scotland on 31 September – 2 October 2019. 

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