Nine tips for a robust local development strategy. Some observations from Poland on local development

Radomir MATCZAK is a public sector manager with 20 years of experience at both central and regional government levels. He specialises in regional policy, EU cohesion policy, public management, institutional reforms, and Baltic cooperation.




There are at least three famous sayings that apply rather well to sound local development. First of them is Chinese and says: Money is not everything, but everything without money is nothing. The second one seems to be American[1] and reads as follows: A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have. And the third one is a saying attributed to Winston Churchill:[2] Now that we have run out of money we have to think.

Although these statements come from different times and countries, they are both valid and relevant for local government—because it is very difficult to be serious about local government without money, without a central government keen on decentralisation, and without creative thinking.

With this in mind, those involved in Ukraine’s decentralisation process may find nine messages in this paper that touch on the issue of effective and inclusive local development strategies, based on key impressions of the Polish experience.


Own tasks


The level of ambitions for a local development strategy is always a major question. It’s easy to say that a strategy should be future-oriented, and focused on economic recovery and innovation. But, in reality, sometimes the best solution is to use all available resources to carry out the necessary tasks assigned to a given municipality in the most efficient way. That means concentrating on such issues as water-supply, central heating, waste management, healthcare, education, culture or public transport might not be so “sexy.” These are basic public services, and at the same time the biggest responsibility of local governments towards their citizens and voters. If their quality can be continuously raised, the chances of generating long-term growth, meaning more active companies, more investments or more jobs, also grow.

The first message is, then: Start thinking of your local development strategy from the tasks you are fully in charge of. For any local self-government, nothing is more important than efficiently carrying out its own tasks defined by law. In many cases, this is already an ambitious challenge.


Own sources


Own tasks can be implemented smoothly only if the sources for funding them are adequate. In short, long-term change is impossible without local public revenues. Only real taxation powers can provide the springboard for a meaningful local development strategy. Without its own sources of income and the ability to shape them locally, local government has no basis for locally-driven policy, since there is no way to take full responsibility for developing actions at the local level. Another very important factor here is a good share of local communities in national taxes,[3] as well as a transparent and fair distribution system of national and regional subsidies or grants, especially for areas that are lagging behind.

All this adds up to the second message: The stronger a link between the local tax-base and local public revenues, the better the means to develop a well-thought-out strategy based on the assumption that the long-term stability and growth of a local tax base are key factors to success.


Public service standards


The next point that must be taken into account when thinking of a strategy is the aims. What is really important here is open communication with local “end-users” about public service standards. All residents and businesses should be fully aware of all the types of public services available at the local level, including minimum standards and availability, as well as anticipated quality improvements. This helps both groups to understand, identify with and influence the strategic choices made in a local development strategy. Meeting the needs of residents is crucial for local governments if they are really interested in getting local support for their strategy. Without such support, even the best local development strategy will fail in the long run.

The third message is as follows: Treat public service standards seriously, as a benchmark in setting local development strategy targets.


Horizontal cooperation


Certain actors play quite an important role as far as a local strategy is concerned, usually neighbouring municipalities, which often share similar problems. Since some important local tasks can be better tackled if they are offered jointly, it’s possible to design and provide some public services on the basis of local-to-local cooperation. This can apply to: water supply systems, sewage treatment, waste management, and soon. It’s not simply “cooperation for the sake of cooperation:” it represents concrete benefits related cost-efficiency and quality improvements.[4] These can significantly help reaching the targets set in the local development strategy.

So, the fourth message is: Horizontal cooperation should be promoted, as it pays off in many cases and gives some extra power to implement a local development strategy through horizontal synergies.


Multi-level cooperation


A good local development strategy can involve important actors at higher levels of government who are responsible for broader problems. Local government can be of help in solving their problems and vice-versa, since some substantial public tasks cannot be effectively delivered without resources and competences shared by different levels of public administration. Areas where regional-local cooperation is needed include public transport, health services, education, labour markets, and SME support. However, one key condition to make this kind of cooperation both effective and efficient is well-considered, long-term territorial agreements among different levels of public administration.

All this can be summarized in the fifth message: The shared provision of some important public services based on multi-level cooperation roots a local development strategy deeply in a wider regional strategy, bringing local goals closer to successful implementation using vertical synergies.


Cross-sector cooperation


To get a full picture, non-public actors should also be considered. They can come from the business sector, such as Chambers of Commerce, the NGO community, such health, education or sport associations, and even from academia. The role of these actors is frequently underestimated, so their contribution to public policy goals should be bigger in principle. They have the potential to cooperate effectively with local governments in search of common benefits, in what is known as “quadruple helix cooperation.[5]

So, the sixth message is: Cross-sector cooperation can give additional creative impetus and resources to the local development strategy, during both the design and implementation phases for transversal synergies.


Empowering the people


Without input from local residents, there can be no real, implementable strategy. On one hand, this seems obvious and it was already mentioned in the third message, regarding public service standards. On the other, it is often unfortunately the case that local development policy is drafted without good communication and without the real participation of those who are the most interested and the most exposed—the residents who will see and feel the benefits of any long-term policy.

The effectiveness of different forms of citizen involvement depends very much on the maturity of the available or chosen democratic process and democratic traditions.[6] Two of those models are particularly advanced and strong. First is participatory budgeting, in which all interested people decide how to allocate parts of the local budget in a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making. Second is the citizens’ assembly, in which a randomly selected group of citizens deliberates an issue of high importance to their municipality in order to study all available options and to propose solutions through rational discussion with the support of experts. The solutions they come up with can then be implemented by the local government.

Thus, the seventh message is: Empowering the people is of paramount importance and growing significance for the successful implementation of strategic and long-term decisions.


Smart responsiveness


So far, the focus has been on the external environment, that is, the tasks and finances assigned to local government, and on the role of different stakeholders who are decisive for the successful implementation of a local strategy.

There are also internal factors stimulating the strategic process at the local level. One of them might be called an “in-house intelligence system,” which is based on reliable data, in-depth local knowledge and broad understating of the surrounding world. Such a system is helpful for identifying local development priorities, provided that local political leaders are also keen on an evidence-driven decision-making process.[7]

So, the eighth message reads: Smart responsiveness is time-consuming and cost-intensive, it always pays off, because it provides a reliable basis for optimal long-term decisions and solutions and a full-fledged strategic approach.


A resilient implementation system


Last but not least, the institutional setting is a critical factor for local development. A smooth, effective implementation of the local strategy requires three key ingredients: a dedicated, competent team with strong leadership and a clear decision making-system; rigorous, pro-active multi-annual financial planning; and effective regulatory instruments in various policy areas.[8]

So, the ninth message is: Durable, visible effects are impossible without a resilient implementation system,[9] which paves the way for long-term success.


To sum up: A recipe for a good local development strategy and the Polish experience


The nine messages can be further summarized in three sentences. Firstly, own tasks, own sources of income and well-communicated public service standards are points of departure for any local development strategy. Secondly, a strategy needs to have friends at different administrative levels and in different sectors (NGOs, academia and business), and to have fans among local citizens, who need to be well informed and deeply involved in the process—it will then be much easier to deliver the expected results. And thirdly, “vision without implementation is hallucination,” so it is critical to build internal intelligence capacity and institutional capacity at the local level to fully implement the strategy.

How fully and consistently was this recipe applied in Poland? It is very hard to give a single and simple answer. Poland does, however, have some features that are worth describing more in detail.

Local development strategies have been implemented in Poland for more than 20 years. So far, there has been no obligation to have this strategy at local level, although around 80% of the country’s nearly 2,500 municipalities have their own strategy. These documents vary extremely in quality,[10] but there is a clear link between the size of a municipality and the quality of its strategic approach.

The tools used in local development strategies in Poland are gradually getting stronger. The EU programming culture developed mainly under its cohesion policy is having a visible impact. There are, of course, some data deficits, especially at the micro-level.[11] Much more should also be done to improve interoperability among key public registers.[12] In addition, there is still quite a lot of reluctance and a competence gap in applying qualitative data and opinion polls, which need to be used more often when making important decisions at the local level. It is also fair to say that in-depth evaluations and impact assessments of various public policies at the local level are far from perfect in the case of Poland.

Finally, two parallel processes, policy and politics, have been identified at the local level in Poland, and their particular mix determines the reality of local development. Moreover, they interfere with each other every day. On one hand, a policy-driven process framed in clear documents, procedures, decision-making systems, coordinated actions, public deliberations with a long-term vision can be seen at the heart of it. On the other, many day-to-day activities are still based on crisis management rather than on a visionary approach. What’s more, an unwritten strategy, meaning that one that is hidden, often short-term, and based on purely tactical intentions, drives some decisions on financial allocations. This seems to mainly be due to the fact that single projects are often a more exiting issue for debate on public policy impacts.

Overall, this recipe should be helpful in further building the Ukrainian approach to local development, including local strategies, enriched by other countries’ experience. It is always important not to blindly follow solutions used by others, but to identify best practices from abroad and use them as a source of inspiration.


Copy editor: Lidia Alexandra Wolanskyj

All terms in this article are meant to be used neutrally for men and women

Radomir Matczak has participated at the International Expert Exchange, "Empowering Municipalities. Building resilient and sustainable local self-government", organized by U-LEAD with Europe Programme in December 2019. His speech delivered during one of the workshops is to a great extent depicted in this article. Despite its late publication, the article is still of significant relevance for the current discussion on decentralization reforms’ next steps in Ukraine.

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union and its member states Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Slovenia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme, the government of Ukraine, the European Union and its member states Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Slovenia.

[1] Generally misattributed to Thomas Jefferson.

[2] And to physicist Ernest Rutherford!

[3] Local development policy is seriously hampered when the share of local authorities in PIT and CIT is not related to the scale of their own tasks.

[4] Joint provision of key public services should be strongly supported and promoted at the national and regional level through fiscal incentives, legal and technical assistance, and so on.

[5] Long-term cooperation platforms between four types of actors: public administration, the business community, the science/research/education sector (such as a regional university), and the civic sector.

[6] E.g., public consultations or hearings, advisory committees or councils, local referenda, participatory budgeting, and citizen assemblies.

[7] It critical for local self-government to: 1) keep making a prospective socio-economic diagnosis based on territorial specificity; 2) equip all interested parties with open-source data on the socio-economic situation; 3) understand and follow a complexity of external factors and conditions to incorporate a deeper context.

[8] For example, local master plans, coherent tax policy, employment incentives, and complex support schemes for business development and investment.

[9] Such a system should mainly cover: a dedicated team of experienced civil servants, which includes investing continuously in their competences; clear, transparent decision-making procedures; and open, friendly consultation channels and participatory solutions for appropriate stakeholders at the local level.

[10] Their content is sometimes quite short-term or too addicted to external financing, such as EU support. Too many communities are focused, not on strategy, but on smaller-scale, lower-level programmes or plans that are required by law.

[11] Such as regarding depressed areas, education, the labour market, public transport flows, and climate management.

[12] That goes especially for taxation, social security, public health and education registers.

16.10.2021 - 09:10 | Views: 1876
Nine tips for a robust local development strategy. Some observations from Poland on local development




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