There is one phenomenon that anyone more or less connected with the EU bubble (even loosely, based at local or national level) is quite familiar with: EU-funded projects. They have been around for the last decades and it seems like they are here to stay.
There’s nothing wrong with that, one may say and indeed, there is generally nothing wrong with funding schemes, whether they are coming from the EU, foundations or other generous actors. But, all too busy with monitoring calls, applying, feverishly awaiting the response, managing, reporting and organising countless events, we seldom question the real impact of all these projects. And by impact I don’t mean in the immediate impact on the organisation(s) involved, but the long-term impact on general policy orientations.
It doesn’t take more than bit of hands-on experience and a slight change of perspective- i.e. leaving your personal office space and pile of forms to fill and looking at the broader context- to realise that in all this funding process there is little or no focus on effective implementation and further follow-up. The proliferation of pilot projects, while not a bad thing in itself, does not automatically translate into policy change. This would not necessarily be a problem, if it were not for the very ambitious aims mentioned in the Calls for Proposals, talking about such elusive things like: “modernisation of Higher Education”, “establishment of sustainable transnational networks” or “reinforcing excellence, dynamism and creativity in European research”. These are, you must agree, very precise, achievable and especially measurable goals.
On the positive side, EU funded projects do achieve something rather important: bringing together organisations from various countries and regions, active in various sectors (academia, non-profit sector, private sector, etc). The requirement to find partners abroad and work together is in itself, I think, one of the greatest achievements of the EU funding schemes. And sometimes, on the odd occasion, the partnerships do last longer than the duration of the project or are revived in the context of other projects, which is by all means a good thing and a proof of long(er) lasting impact.
Nevertheless, when making the effort to look beyond that, all we see is an almost never-ending chain of projects, arguably keeping busy a large number of people, regardless of the sector they work in, but that unfortunately have no long-term, sustainable impact. It’s a vicious circle of “projects for projects’ sake”, each one reinforcing the need for the next, but always missing a clear link with the overall goals. One could even say the actually are missing a “reality check”.
So what are the main problems? And why do we even talk about “problems” when at first sight the process is running smoothly, deadlines are met, money is being spent, reports are being written and event-hopping has almost become a new sport? Here are three structural issues that make us question the overall efficiency of the EU funding process and its impact on policy-making:
1. The whole approach is somewhat faulted: the funding guidelines are encouraging applications from various grassroots organisations, in an attempt to outline what is often labeled as “best practices”. The outcome is a variety of projects, focusing on a variety of issues, from a variety of perspectives. Yes, the key word is “variety”. However, in order to have any noticeable impact, there needs to be consistency, both in the way projects are selected and in the way they are/ should be followed-up. There is nothing wrong per se with a rich collection of projects, but their value would be infinitely increased if they belonged to a “grand design”, or, to put it bluntly, if anyone (ranging from the EC to the project partners) could explain in plain language (and not in the project management meaningless jargon) what’s the main point of a certain project, why it was selected, how it fits in the larger funding scheme and, most of all, how it will be followed-up. Maybe then one would avoid useless duplications and, even more importantly, countless ephemeral “success stories”.
2. Project management has become a new industry. The whole project management cycle, from application to management and dissemination, is becoming an occupation in itself, instead of being the means to reaching goals. Moreover, the system seems to play to the advantage of the same organisations that are successful in their applications, for the simple reason that they already know what the EC wants to read in the application forms. New jobs are created and are being financed by EU funds (nothing bad as such) but unfortunately they are not sustainable jobs: you are useful as long as you can bring more money to finance your salary. This is a weird logic, but who has time to think of that when caught in the spider-web of project coordination, reporting, organising countless events and, obviously, always being alert to new funding opportunities? Indeed, who has time, in this ever so dynamic work environment, to think what, if any, role the project plays, in the greater scheme of things? Or if there is a greater scheme of things. There is only one moment when this thought briefly, but painfully occurs: as the end of the funding period looms, one question becomes more and more present: “What next?”. But before any more meaningful answers comes up, the obvious one is: “Next project”.
3. The requirements of the calls for proposals are quite specific, but they do tend to repeat over several calls. The result: a list of projects that reproduce the same features, as every project manager tries hard to reinvent the wheel, while totally aware there are many “wheels” already out there, most likely also the result of EU funded projects. A good example here are online collaborative platforms. There is a still ongoing trend to require that part of the project should be dedicated to establishing such platforms, with the (again, very achievable) aim of linking various target groups, be it researchers and policy makers, industry and academia and so on. Not only is an overview of all the platforms not publicly available for those interested, but the potential applicants are strongly advised to come up with a new one, more innovative (!?) than the ones before. Never mind that there are several social networks out there that could be used. Never mind that this takes up a big chunk of the grant itself, that could be used for better purposes. Never mind that the whole collaborative platform approach has had mixed results and actually requires a huge amount of resources (especially human resources) to be successful. It is trendy, so it’s a catchword to be used in the application. The rest will be dealt with at a later stage.
It is interesting to see that, beyond the hundreds of small successful projects, there is a lack of long-term vision that prevents the different projects to fulfil their full potential. It is like a table full of puzzle pieces, with various colours and designs. The only thing the puzzle designer left out is the instruction sheet. And soon it becomes clear that it will take quite a bit of shuffling to make the pieces fit and complement each other in what is to be a meaningful, recognisable picture. Or, in other words, an effective EU funding policy.