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Challenges of implementing networking and governance mechanisms in the EIP

This guest post is written by Doris Marquardt, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Regional Development and Location Management, EURAC, Bolzano, Italy.

The setting-up of the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) ‘Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability’ as a new instrument under the rural development pillar in the next funding period has – in comparison to other elements in this CAP reform – so far not been the subject of contentious debate.
According to the draft regulation, the EIP is seen as a driver for innovation in the primary and food sectors. Added-value creation is expected by linking researchers and practitioners, promoting the transfer of new approaches into practice, informing the science community about research needs that matter “on the ground”, and by focussing existing policies on innovation. It is intended that the EIP will help build a competitive primary sector that secures sustainable global food and raw material availability. Dissemination of results (on innovation) and EU-wide networking should lead to gains for the sector as a whole.
Operational Groups (OGs), to be formed by interested actors such as farmers, producers and scientists, are foreseen to be supported under the future Cooperation measure in Pillar 2. Funds can be provided for OGs’ running costs and for realising innovative projects. An EIP Network will be set up initiated at the European level. Furthermore, transnational initiatives may compete for funding under EU’s Horizon 2020 Research programme.
Discussion of the EIP frequently underlines the vagueness of the (still) abstract concept (for example, see this earlier post). The EIP has been developed based on stakeholder consultation and workshops and lessons learned from a pilot EIP. On the one hand, it should be acknowledged that a pilot project has been initiated. On the other hand, one trial, implemented under special attention, offers quite a limited insight into the potential functioning of the EIP as an inherent part of CAP programming across all member states.
The same applies to the presentation of existing initiatives at the preparatory workshops: individual good-practice stories, from among possibly numerous failed initiatives, have been stimulated by “self-interest” and have not been framed by interventional conditions. Both the pilot EIP and good-practice examples are likely to provide limited guidance to the implementation challenges of what appears to be – at first glance – a new process and methodological approach.
Actually, apart from its name, the EIP approach is not that novel; the instrumental features of cross-sectoral partnerships and networking as drivers for innovation in the agricultural and rural sectors can already be found in the current funding period. Support for local public-private partnerships, as a lever for regional rural development, as well as their interregional and transnational cooperation projects, is currently provided under the EAFRD’s LEADER Axis.
The European and National Rural Networks link the implementation of all four EAFRD Axes by circulating information on EU rural development policies, promoting best practices, and bringing rural stakeholders together. So why not build on the experiences already gained from implementing partnerships, cooperation and networking interventions?
Networking – an ambitious catalyst….

The promotion of the EIP claims that “it is not about additional funding, adding measures or duplicating efforts” (EC 2012). Instead, the emphasis is on the promise of added-value creation through stimulating partnerships and networking.
Due to the instrumental features of partnerships and networking, the EIP has indeed the potential for socially-based added value. This can be exploited if cooperation and sharing of information are achieved by actors’ own initiatives. Since funding is planned for the running costs of the OGs, it is already obvious that it is about additional funding. Experience shows that without financial support for transaction costs, hardly any formal partnerships would be formed in the rural sector; in addition networking needs at least management and organisational support to be effective (Marquardt 2013). Therefore, allocating funds to drive the EIP is indeed useful, even if it does not reflect how the EIP is promoted.
The EIP strives for added value through complementarity by bringing practitioners and scientists together, and for synergies through fostering exchange among partners from different projects, sectors and policy fields. Such (added) value might indeed be more valuable than the funds invested in partnership and networking activities.
The preconditions for achieving this are that actors collaborate with each other and contribute to EIP activities. This requires that they see their potential benefits and act from self-interest. Actors are particularly likely to contribute when the objectives of partnerships and networking are developed endogenously (Marquardt 2013). Therefore, the EIP’s bottom-up approach can generally be endorsed.
…. or a threat to effectiveness and efficiency?

However, drawing on the experience of existing rural networks, there are at least five reasons to question whether the desired contribution of actors and their collaboration will be easily achieved, and whether OGs “will constitute themselves around topics of interest”:
1) Reporting for funded local public-private partnerships and their involvement in networking activities is currently obligatory (as is also foreseen for the OGs), but their current contribution to rural networks is limited.
2) Currently in rural networks it appears difficult to bring together different stakeholder groups in the networks, even if such activities are strongly stimulated. The rural networks (at least some of them, particularly the European network) already follow the objective of bringing researchers and rural practitioners together. Experience shows that this ambition is not easy. Scientists in some member states are often not even aware of the networks; the same applies to farmers, particularly those operating on a larger scale. This difficulty in stimulating the collaboration of different stakeholder groups even exists for actors in more closely related fields such as education and research [e.g. the 2012 SCAR report on AKIS).
3) Stakeholders from the agricultural and research sectors are comparatively uninvolved in rural networks even though they are desired members, and often explicitly addressed.
4) Not all objectives ascribed to the EIP might be advocated by the stakeholders who it is anticipated will be involved. For example, the emphasis on fostering competitiveness “in harmony with the environment” might decrease the motivation of farmers to get involved, since some societal challenges are not naturally the central concern of farmers.
5) Member states might narrow the field of topics to be dealt with in OGs, and eligibility/selection criteria might further determine who is motivated / able to engage in OGs.
These experiences suggest that although the actors involved in OGs can potentially expect added value going beyond their own effort, high incentives are needed to stimulate OG creation and to get the desired actors involved. In designing the OG intervention, it is worth noting that although there are currently incentives for formal/institutionalized funded cooperation, they are often not used by the target groups because the administrative burdens are too high; instead, informal or other alternative partnerships are created. This applies for instance to cooperation projects between rural regions funded under LEADER (Marquardt 2013).
Avoiding duplication through multiple networks

The claim that the EIP “is not about duplication” calls for attention in two regards. First, the draft RD regulation states that the scope of the National Rural Networks will explicitly include innovation in agriculture, so one might question whether it is necessary to create three different networks (the rural network, the EIP network and the evaluation network). The reasoning for these different organisational structures is only partly convincing. Specialised networks may increase overall effectiveness but the underlying promise, namely: “as it ensures that the necessary knowledge on various aspects will be mobilised” may not be fulfilled.
With specialised networks, actors can be targeted more directly. If the subject of a network is too broad actors lose interest in the network (Marquardt 2013). The argument is also made that “as regards innovation, a dedicated network at EU level is necessary in order to have the adequate expertise (technical, practical and scientific) and an effective two-way interaction between all the stakeholders working in the agricultural sector and the scientific community”.
However, this can also appear as a somewhat artificial argument when considering that a) the rural networks are also expected to strive for innovation in agriculture, b) rural networks also seek to involve representatives of the agricultural and food sector as well as scientists, c) the potential for complementary ideas and innovation increases with a greater heterogeneity of actors involved in networking activities, and d) results of OGs/ the EIP need to be promoted throughout the whole sector.
No matter whether setting up an independent EIP network resulted from the necessary transposition of Horizon 2020 into the CAP, or from deeper considerations about the design of this instrument, fine-tuning the scope of the various networks will certainly be needed.
To assume that the “network will animate activities at Union, national, regional, and local level” (EC 2012) in the most efficient way is questionable, even if the EIP Service Point at European level works ambitiously. Having national network units, and in some countries even regional network units, in place is essential for mobilising actors on the ground, and to address regional needs. The argument adduced by Brussels might only be to justify the statement that the “number of networks at EU level does not affect national networks as member states may handle matters as they want” (EC 2012).
Relying solely on a Service Point at the European level might make sense if the EIP were only administered at this level; but since member states will have their own priorities and programme criteria, it will not be possible to address all the questions of the actors interested in EIP activities in Brussels. Thus, member states will be indirectly forced to designate a unit as an interface between the EU-wide EIP network and national programming, which will involve additional effort.
Coherent instrumentation?

The second question one might raise concerning duplication/non-duplication is how many network- and transfer-of-best/good-practice initiatives are already supported within EU programmes. Even only considering the field of research, one can find many initiatives with similar topics running in parallel, paying little attention to each other. Consequently, striving to fruitfully interlink different policy fields within the EIP is quite ambitious.
Moreover, how many research reports and databases could be screened for relevant issues which could be transposed into practitioner-friendly reports and translated into practice? These questions highlight how duplication cannot only be seen in the context of parallels between rural networks and the EIP, but has further dimensions in improving coherence and efficiency in the overall range of EU instruments.
EIP governance – positive design feature or increased risk of failure?

The presentation of the EIP goes along with flowery phrases linked to governance structures that evoke positive impressions, such as “bottom-up approach” and “light” governance. Use of the latter is motivated by the idea that the EIP will build on existing structures. “Light” governance probably also underlines a potential flexibility in terms of how to implement the EIP in the member states.
However, “light governance” does not imply the avoidance of governance failure. This applies not only to avoiding duplicated organisational structures and the responsibility for selecting the focus research topics – which might be (further) narrowed down at EU and national levels, and potentially limit the EIP’s contribution to the overarching 2020 Horizon objectives. It also applies to the relevance of endogenously developed objectives for effective partnerships and networking.
Another reason for consciously including governance in the design of this instrument is to transpose superior EU legislation into the CAP. Indeed, under the Common Strategic Framework and the 2020 Strategy there is no obligation to introduce instruments particularly focussing on improving governance. However, improving governance is an ambition manifested in the treaties. Authorities in the agricultural sector do well to underline the fact that also within the CAP, some effort in this direction is undertaken.  Rural stakeholders at national and European levels also see shared management and good governance as essential for effective policy implementation.
Promoting the positive governance aspects of the EIP goes along with the risk of making false promises and failing in terms of policy effectiveness. Experiences show that one (missing) sentence within the legislative framework can easily destroy all ambitions in this regard. For the current funding period, the obligation resulting from horizontal Community priorities to translate “improving governance” into the CAP has been mentioned in the strategic guidelines for rural development in the context of the rural networks; but it has not been transposed into and operationalized in the binding rural development regulation. As a consequence, the objective of improving governance is in many cases not actively pursued (Marquardt 2013).
Therefore if, at the European level, within the context of the EIP, the aim is to propose the use of new governance mechanisms and/or improve governance. that ambition should be made explicit in some kind of intervention logic, and should also be evaluated.
Even if consultation on the EIP is currently in progress, and the need for a bottom-up approach is stressed several times, there is a strong sense that the EIP is top-down driven. Not only is the set-up of the EIP at EU and national levels, including the prescription of certain topics and the ambition for innovation and public-private partnerships, driven from the top, but also the initiation of OGs is a top-down stimulus. This is not necessarily a weakness, since top-down and bottom-up approaches might fruitfully complement each other; however, the underlying rationale should be made clear.
Governance has at least two dimensions: vertically, the EU’s multi-level governance system covers the local, regional, national and European levels, and horizontally, it strives to involve various stakeholders in policy-making. Within the EIP, the latter will become particularly relevant in the context of OGs. For both dimensions, the absence of prescriptions on structures, processes or/and framing conditions or their poor formulation entail the risk of worsened governance, and legislative conditions need to be carefully designed.
For LEADER, naming only one example, it turned out that due to the final programme design and administrative requirements, the vertical dimension was severely constrained by limiting the spectrum of measures fundable under LEADER. In addition, efforts to improve governance horizontally through local public-private partnerships sometimes evoked the opposite, as exclusive partnerships were funded.
In the context of OGs, besides the risk of exclusive partnerships, there is the danger that the research sector shows interest in the EIP ahead of stakeholders from the agricultural and food sectors; then EIP topics would likely be research-driven rather than reflecting practitioners’ needs. Target-group-adapted promotion of the EIP to mobilise practitioners might counter this outcome. But within the implementation process, scientists might have the upper hand if the practitioners shy away from programme-related bureaucracy. The patterns of dependency might change when it comes to the need for (co-)financing the translation of research into practice.
Governance structures become relevant not only in transposing strategic objectives into eligible topics and setting selection criteria for OGs, but also when the budgetary distribution for the EIP is determined. While funds appear to be secured for competing transnational initiatives under the 2020 Horizon research budget, the total EIP budget will depend on the motivation of member states to allocate funds to EIP activities, specifically to OGs, which will significantly determine the EIP’s overall effectiveness.
Outlook

The planned creation of the EIP and its promotion holds opportunities and risks. It is now time to overcome vagueness, and to replace promises and flowery phrases with concrete recommendations. The potential of harvesting added value from partnerships and networking as a way to increase the efficiency of interventions is promising; however, setting added-value creation as an objective is ambitious and prone to policy failure. Failure will be easier to avoid if its risk is communicated in a timely manner. The set-up of rural networks in the current funding period has revealed that a warm-up period for “new” interventions might be needed, and this must be reflected in the EIP design.
In many member states networks have successfully contributed to enhancing rural development policies, which ultimately depends on personal engagement by staff in the network units. Persons in charge will have to show that they are really committed to implementation of the EIP. Consultations and workshops are a first step, where results must be translated into programming documents to avoid the impression that these are only a facade.
The authorities at both European and national levels must demonstrate that they really do want to further the objectives behind the EIP and to use the full potential of this instrument.
Photo credit Hungarian National Rural Network

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