Big Dreams and Small Steps: Understanding Regional Policy Networks and What They Achieve

Regional networks have been established across Europe to help improve the delivery of public services. But how effective are these networks in fostering innovation? Nicolette van Gestel and Sanne Grotenbreg present the results of a study of regional networks involved in labor market policy in the Netherlands. They show that despite the establishment of various partnerships, new and bold solutions to complex problems remain rare.

In many Western countries, much is expected of regional networks in policy areas as diverse as health, energy supply or security. In such regional networks, the government is expected to develop partnerships with private and non-profit parties, to develop solutions to societal problems that enjoy broad support and commitment. In general, public and private actors often recognize that they need each other to achieve their objectives. But this idea does not generate success by itself. Sometimes actors tend to focus on their own advantage when participating in networks, and are not very efficient or effective in working together.

In a recent study, we examine regional networks involved in labor market policy. Governments, employers, unions, customers and educational organizations are jointly seeking solutions to persistent problems, such as the gap between job offers and job seekers, and the lack of employment opportunities for people with mental or physical disabilities. In other words, they have to address issues of mismatch and inequality that have increased even more during the Covid-19 crisis. Decentralization and regional cooperation should, in principle, ensure more integrated and efficient public services, but also generate creative solutions that go beyond existing policy frameworks.

We examine five regional networks for labor market policy in the Netherlands. Based on existing knowledge in the field, we distinguish between “small” innovations, such as public organizations that offer services together (one-stop-shop idea) and “large” innovations, where real new solutions are developed in collaboration to solve persistent problems.

These solutions, for example, could include linking labor market policy to related areas such as health care and social policy, helping people outside the labor market with “holistic services” to get jobs sustainable. Or, to combine labor market policy with economic and technological innovation and education, to help companies and workers move into new jobs with different requirements (e.g. in energy transition or digital transformation ).

What is striking about our research is that these broader, creative innovations are seen as important, but in practice it is mostly small steps that are taken. We find that collaboration in regional networks and its impact are still modest and that innovation in the form of small steps is limited to one region and a few local initiatives.

It turns out that decentralization to regional networks is not a simple move from a top-down policy to a bottom-up approach, often in a context of austerity. Interestingly, the limited results are not due to the reluctance of actors in the region to cooperate, but to the structural obstacles they face. Contrary to popular assumptions of a nation-state in decline, our study underscores the need for the national government to take on even more responsibility for creating the conditions for regional policy to succeed. Well-thought-out institutional and financial frameworks are needed to increase both small-scale and large-scale innovation through regional networks. Multi-level governance is needed to develop these frameworks and strategic leadership – including from politicians in different roles.

By identifying the barriers and enablers of network innovations in the public sector, we hope that our research, in turn, will provide small steps to help facilitate large-scale innovations that create public value, while pointing to a future research program.

For more information, see the authors’ companion article in Policy & Politics. This article is part of a series on strategic management of the transition to public sector co-creation, hosted on the Policy & Politics blog.

Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Omar Flores on Unsplash

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