More than 200 representatives of local authorities, economic development agencies, enterprises and research institutions from the Lüneburg Region have taken part in purposeful discussions about the Lower-Saxony Multi-Fund Operational Programme 2014-2020 and its upcoming funding period. Questions have been asked, such as: what are the underused potentials in the Programme? How should the Programme be adjusted to the needs of SMEs and knowledge institutions from the rural territories of the Region? And, what risks and opportunities are involved in the improvement of the policy instrument? Local stakeholders have been integrally part of helping to answer these questions in rounds of discussions, initiated by a partner in the project RUMORE, the Office for Regional Development Lüneburg.
The Programme’s implementation report for 2017, (completed in 2018), has highlighted how necessary and enriching these discussions have been for Lüneburg Region, revealing inadequacies of the Programme and areas for improvement. For example, in the first half of the current funding period of the Programme, the absorption rates of spending and the number of submitted applications were significantly lower than in the other three regions in Lower Saxony, which use the same Operational Programme. Budgetary commitment is also low in its funding guidelines within the priority axes addressed by the RUMORE project, such as priority axes 1 which supports innovation. Funding and reasons for low budgetary commitment differ between the types of funding guidelines. For some funding opportunities, such as the funding guideline for non-university research institutions, the funding is also not competitive, where there are very few potential applicants in the region. Other funding opportunities, such as the funding guideline that supports social innovation in priority axes 7, are not sufficiently known among stakeholders.
The Office for Regional Development Lüneburg initiated targeted measures to increase the amount of applications for funding, when it became clear that there is a low response for funding within the period by stakeholders from the Lüneburg Region. One of the measures involved the organization of three workshops with regional stakeholders. The workshops were held in the period from October until December 2018 and provided local stakeholders with the possibility to analyze the Programme guidelines with a low response and generate ideas on how to improve budgetary commitment and to generate more applications. The workshops resulted in a number of fruitful ideas which are now put into practice, including an idea to implement “application workshops” where SMEs receive support in preparing their funding applications.
A primary response from the workshops was that more advisory services are necessary to support applicants. This sentiment was especially expressed by small enterprises, but also municipalities who indicated the need for more advice on how to develop project applications. The increased advertisement for funds in the last months has reportedly slightly improved the number of applications in Lüneburg Region. Nevertheless, there remain some key areas for improvement, as identified by stakeholders to support further participation, which has been culminated into a list of to-dos to increase the number of applications. During the discussions it was emphasized that certain requirements of funding guidelines are also too difficult to fulfill for stakeholders in rural and economically less developed areas, such as a requirement for a certain amount of cooperation partners. In response to prescriptive criteria such as cooperation partners, many stakeholders expressed a request for more flexibility.
As the Programme’s funding period ends in 2020, the results of discussions will be considered in preparing for the next funding period. In March 2019, over 200 participants discussed needs for the next funding period. The event raised different viewpoints by stakeholders, many of which were promoted and at least partly prepared in the framework of the RUMORE project, mainly related to the need for improved funding instruments for projects across administrative federal state borders.
The Office for Regional Development Lüneburg participates in further thematic working groups at federal-state level for the preparation of the next funding period, where results and ideas from the RUMORE project will also be presented. Lüneburg Region is one of four regions in the federal state of Lower Saxony, and so stakeholder views from within the regions will be considered equally, and consultation and further decision-making processes will take place on different levels.