Technical Assistance is an often overlooked but critical part of Cohesion Policy programmes. ‘Capacity building support’ would be a more appropriate term given the purpose of TA is to improve the quality of governance through leadership development, staff training, improvements in administrative efficiency, knowledge building and learning. Yet, while there are many good examples of TA use across the Member States, a new EPRC study for DG REGIO finds that the potential of TA is being insufficiently exploited.
TA is small in percentage terms, comprising 3.1% of ESIF allocations, but it still accounts for substantial resources. Over €11 bn of EU support has been allocated to TA under ERDF, ESF and the Cohesion Fund across the EU28 in 2014-20.
Most TA is used under ERDF especially in the larger programmes in less-developed regions, and much of it is used to finance operational staff salaries and other organisational operating costs. The focus of TA on running costs is understandable given the need to resource programme management adequately. Programmes require a complex mix of staff expertise to ensure regulatory compliance and meet strategic goals and operational targets.
However, the potential of TA goes much wider than supporting operational costs. The EPRC study identified case studies of TA used to incentivise innovation in programme administration, experiment with new tools, introduce new systems of human resource management, improve the advisory support for beneficiaries, promote communication and ciizen engagement, acquire knowledge from elsewhere, and develop evaluation models and analytical tools to strengthen the evidence base for programme management.
There are, though, important constraints on using TA effectively for administrative capacity-building. In some cases, there is a lack of political and organisational commitment, or insufficient ‘buy in’ from stakeholders. A culture of cooperation and learning is not universal. And capacity building is not easy. While some practices are relatively straightforward to introduce (such as acquiring new equipment), organisation or cultural changes are complex and take time, good planning and adaptation to embed successfully.
The EPRC study contains many detailed insights into the strengths and weaknesses of TA use for capacity-building. Three main groups of lessons relate to the strategy, governance and culture of capacity-building.
- Effective administrative capacity building depends on a well-founded, coherent and forward looking strategy. This entails having a clear rationale for TA based on a sound strategic analysis, shared vision, long-term perspective, and a mix of different types of capacity-building measures. Flexibility of support and targeting are also important as can be the frontloading of investments.
- As with other aspects of ESIF, good governance of investment for administrative capacity building requires leadership, coordination and stakeholder involvement.
- Effective TA strategic planning and good governance for administrative capacity building are underpinned by a learning culture. Successful use of TA involves iterative review to facilitate reflexive learning and, where existing capacities are low, TA can be used to stimulate administrative innovation. Robust monitoring systems are required for learning as well as transparency and accountability.
Looking forward, the study makes fours sets of recommendation to improve the future application of TA in the 2021-27 period.
- Develop administrative capacity building roadmaps for the 2021-2027 period including a reorientation to encompass a broader range of capacity building activities. The research underlines the importance of capacity-building embracing a mix of HR support, organisational reforms, and provision of systems and tools. While salary support continues to be important and necessary, the longer-term impact of TA support for administrative capacity building requires other aspects of capacity building to be given more priority.
- Support the entire ‘ecosystem’ of ESIF management and implementation. TA support is frequently used for Intermediate Bodies, national coordinating bodies or Managing Authorities. It has not always filtered down to implementing bodies, delivery agents and beneficiaries on the ground. This is an important gap for a place-based policy and should be addressed in 2021-2027 programmes, for example through stakeholder consultations to enable a ‘discovery’ of the needs of different actors, the implementation of action plans, and the the earmarking of set proportions of TA funds for different actors charged with management and delivery functions.
- Develop learning strategies for capacity building. The use of TA needs to be flexible and adaptable to change, responding to changing internal and external environment. Administrative capacity building strategies, roadmaps and action plans should be regarded as ‘live’ documents, which are kept flexible to respond to evolving needs and ongoing learning from their implementation and provide scope for innovation.
- Ensure coherent management of administrative capacity building at EU level. In the 2021-2027 programming cycle, the support provided for administrative capacity building through TA should be coordinated with wider public service administrative reforms. DG REGIO, working with DG REFORM and other relevant DGs, should collaborate, where required, with Member States, to provide support to domestic authorities.
Good governance is critical for effective use of Cohesion Policy, as DG REGIO and DG EMPL have increasingly emphasised in recent years, with additional impetus given by the creation of DG REFORM. The management of Cohesion Policy programmes in 2021-27 will be more challenging than ever before. Programmes will need to balance supporting economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis with longer term development goals. Allocations to Member States under the Multannual Financial Framework need to be coordinated with the fast take-up of resources under REACT-EU and the Recovery and Resilience Facility (which also has cohesion objectives). Making the best use of Technical Assistance (or should that be Capacity Building Support?) has the potential to be a game changer for improving the quality of programme governance.
John Bachtler and Laura Polverari
The use of technical assistance for administrative capacity building in the 2014-2020 period, by Laura Polverari, John Bachtler, Martin Ferry, Carlos Mendez and Jayne Ogilvie, Final Report to the European Commission (DG Regio), European Policies Research Centre, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow