R. Lukesch, H. Gassler, B. Ecker, L. Fidlschuster, M. Fischer, S. Mair, S. Philipp, N. Said
Abstract –The research project SILEA aimed at exploring the significance, extent and possible effects of Social Innovation in the framework of the LEADER Measure of the Austrian Rural Development Program 2014-20. The study leaned onto a complex mix of methods combining a comprehensive online survey, software based text analysis methods, qualitative interviews, focus groups and idiographic case studies. The results give reason to conclude that the methodological principles of the LEADER approach – provided the local actors manage to bring them into effect – are highly conducive to social innovation. On the other hand administrative burden deriving from overly complex national delivery systems for public funding in the context of EU cohesion and agricultural policy tend to narrow down considerably the Local Action Groups’ action space. To that effect recommendations have been formulated addressing program authorities as well as Local Action Groups.
LEADER is a European approach for local development in rural areas dating back to a first experimental run from 1991 to 1994 as a Community Initiative. Since 2007 it has been mainstreamed as a measure in Rural Development Programs funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), since 2014 it is also eligible for optional funding from the European Regional and Social Fund as well as the European Maritime and Fishery Fund. LEADER reposes on the methodological principles of an area-based, multi-sectoral, bottom-up and innovative approach, promoting networking and cooperation between rural territories. Most importantly it is supposed to be implemented in a decentralized form of governance and civil society participation. Independent private-public partnerships called Local Action Groups (LAGs) are entitled to implement a Local Development Strategy (LDS) which they are called to work out with substantial participation of local people. The aim of the research study ‘Social Innovation in LEADER 14-20’ (SILEA) was to analyse the significance and the extent to which socially innovative development projects have been enabled and promoted by LAGs in Austria including an estimate of the effects of such projects in the areas concerned. Paraphrasing the SIMRA understanding of Social Innovations, the study team defined these as social practices which by virtue of new forms of cooperation between public, private and civil society actors improve the social relationships and people’s living conditions (see also Kluvánková et al. 2018).
The variegated use of the term ‚social innovation‘ in the social and scientific discourse called for a complex research setting which can be termed ‘double triangulation’: first in respect to the different viewpoints taken into consideration and secondly regarding the mix of methods applied. In a first step, all the 77 LAGs operating in the programming period 2014-2020 were asked to participate in an online survey based on a standardized questionnaire to which 82 % actually responded. Moreover all the 77 Local Development Strategies and 1.628 project descriptions accessible online have been dissected with text analysis software (Latent Semantic Analysis, Occurrence Analysis etc.). In a thorough filtering process the research team selected eight projects or bundles of projects for in-depth case studies. The case studies were evenly distributed over the eight rural States of Austria in order to capture different socio-economic and regional governance contexts. The narrative technique of the ‘case stories’ was shaped according to the methodological principles of ‘innovation biographies’ (Butzin und Widmaier 2016). As could be shown, the innovation cycle usually straddles several projects and even programming periods. The maximum duration of a funded project is currently fixed at three years and this time span would be definitely too short to capture the whole life cycle of social innovation initiatives from its origins and triggering events through growth phases until their gradual institutionalisation and, here and there, their upscaling or spreading out.
Although the term ‚social innovation‘ is still rarely used in the context of LEADER, the findings allow for an estimate of the approximate share of socially innovative projects between one sixth (as assessed by the study experts) and one third of all projects (as assessed by the respondents themselves which were almost exclusively LAG managers) funded under LEADER. This number turned out to be higher than expected, but it is understandable if we connect the notion of social innovation according to the definition with the mission of the LAGs in the framework of the LEADER method and its methodological principles. Project funding is not the only means by which LAGs foster social innovation in their area. Apart from functioning as a decentralized funding delivery mechanism, the LEADER method foresees a strong role of the LAG in the sensitization, motivation and enhancing of local people’s capacities to generate and manage their self-devised development initiatives. Consequentially, 59 % of the respondents confirmed that the LAG also promotes social innovation beyond mere project funding support. The LEADER principles of bottom-up participation, multi-sectoral strategies, mixed partnerships, networking and cooperation for the sake of territorial innovation are actually key drivers of social innovation. 94 % of the respondents said that the LAG should promote a culture of self-organisation and empowerment in the area.
During the text analysis a software algorithm was ‘trained‘ for becoming able to distinguish socially not innovative projects from a whole pile of project descriptions. The algorithm finally achieved to match expert judgements at a rate of 81 %. This is remarkable because admittedly in the Latent Semantic Analysis it was found out that there is a certain concentration of certain terms such as ‘inclusion’, ‘social cohesion’, ‘people with handicaps’, ‘children’, ‘youth’, ‘integration’ etc. in socially innovative projects, but that these terms can also be found – although less frequently – in projects labelled as ‘socially not innovative’ by the experts. The ‘trained’ algorithm can be helpful to pre-select project descriptions from huge databases whose thorough reading would exceed the resource capacity of experts searching suitable good practice examples.
Social innovation primarily emerges in fields of action where the strengthening of the commons and common well-being is in the focus, such as education, culture, intergenerational cohesion, equality of opportunities, social cohesion and inclusion of immigrants or cultural minorities. However social innovation turns out to be equally relevant with regard to local economic development. According to the online survey 63 % of the projects which were considered as socially innovative by the LAG managers have direct links to the creation of local economic value and still 54% of the projects dealing with local transport and mobility alternatives.
Discussion and Conclusions
The findings show that most leading actors of Local Action Groups are aware of the normative principles and supposed operation mode of the LEADER method which in essence aims at improving the social capital and therewith the development capacities of the people and their area. The LAGs appear to be quite skillful in fostering and accompanying social innovation initiatives through interlinking consecutive projects funded from diverse resources. On their way along the development path, the initiatives try to become self-sustained either through marketable services, the acquisition of a public mandate, continual civic mobilisation or, predominantly, through a combination of these three forms of viability. The LAG can play different supportive roles: from that of an ‚enabler by exception‘ or ‘by default‘ to a ‘social entrepreneur’ limited in time or even permanently, provided the institutional context explicitly entrusts the LAG with that kind of mission in a determined field of action (e.g. ‘youth‘, ‘immigrants‘ inclusion‘, ‘support to the third sector‘ etc.).
The capability of the LAG relies on the engagement of its key actors – be they members of the board or of voluntary work groups, be they salaried staffers or remunerated consultants. Styles and operation modes differ from one LAG to another, depending on the regional or national context but also on the history of the LAG itself. Some leading actors are visible at the forefront as promoters of social innovation, particularly in the cases in which the LAG is promoting and implementing a flagship project on its own account. Other actors rather act as gatekeepers and mentors in the background, giving advice on demand, smoothening the sometimes bumpy roads for project promoters and relieving these from administrative tasks.
Projects fostering social innovation are often designed already in the strategy elaboration stage, but they may also emerge during implementation – unforeseen and unexpectedly. The latter has been the case in more than half of the cases according to the respondents. In any event it seems to be beneficial for the LAG to put a strategic focus on social innovation, for the particularly interesting practices have been found in those areas where the LAGs are consciously concerned with social innovation – however they name it – and try to incorporate this heedfulness into their project scouting and generation processes. Some LAGs systematically reflect on the local ‘innovation ecosystem’ within and outside the LAG structure. We know that collective participation and reflection processes are inseparable from social innovation. In all the uncertainty which is inherent to any notion of innovation, a shared vision, negotiated common purpose, transparency and methodological clearness, but also ‚quick wins‘ on the way help keeping the innovative actors’ spirits high.
The structural diversity of decision-making bodies of the LAG and their manifold networking relationships enable the LAG to connect to a broad range of stakeholders and population groups. This conclusion confirms the importance of the EU-wide regulatory obligation that the voting weight of public actors or of any other single interest group in LAG decision-making bodies must be limited at 49%. Similar salutary effects are reported from a vivid participation of the LAG and local key actors in inter-regional and trans-national networks and partnerships.
On the other hand LAGs are integral parts of the regional governance and the program delivery system. The concomitant obligations and administrative requirements undoubtedly constrain the maneuvering space of the LAGs for local development promotion. Nearly all interlocutors stated that the time spent for financial management, administration, monitoring and reporting is excessive, eating up the available time resources – and sometimes also damaging the role attribution in the eyes of the local people – for local animation and capacity development operations. The interlocutors also stated that the rigid periodicity of project funding (maximum three years) and of the whole programming period (seven years) are acting against the role of LAGs as support structures for social innovation.
Recommendations for change
The findings and the corollary conclusions led the study team to formulate policy recommendations to the program authorities. First and foremost the authorities should keep to assure the strategic ownership of the LAGs on LDS elaboration and implementation including project selection, but at the same time discharge the LAGs from overly bureaucratic processes which diminish their ability to act as catalysts and promoters of local development. The full potential for administrative simplification, upfront financing of projects for resource-poor but innovative local project promoters should be maxed out. Even after funding has been granted and the project being in full course it should be made easier for project promoters to adapt their planned activities during to changing conditions and lessons learnt on the way. The study authors also provided recommendations for LAGs and local actors, such as putting an explicit focus on social innovation and to dedicate the necessary resources (strategic targets, time and space for common reflection and strategic revision) to this end. This requires building up the respective awareness, cognitive capacities and skills among key actors. It also requires placing sufficient emphasis on fostering a culture of bottom-up initiative and local self-organisation in the area. Individual and collective actors committing themselves to social innovation should get the necessary appreciation which implies their improved access to training and networking opportunities.
The research study was commissioned and funded by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism in the framework of the evaluation of Rural Development Program implementation from the EAFRD in the period 2014-2020. The study was implemented by the ÖAR GmbH in the leading role together with the Center of Social Innovation (ZSI).
Butzin, A. und Widmaier, B. (2016): Exploring Territorial Knowledge Dynamics through Innovation Biographies. Regional Studies, 50:2, 220-232.
Lukesch, R., Ecker, B., Fidlschuster, L., Fischer, M., Gassler, H., Mair, S., Philipp, S. und Said, N. (2019): Analyse der Potenziale Sozialer Innovation im Rahmen von LEADER 2014-20. On behalf of the BMNT, Wien.
Kluvánková, T. et al. (2017): Transdisciplinary Understanding of Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas. Report D2.2 of SIMRA (EU-Horizon Project ‘Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas’, 2016-20).
 R. Lukesch, L. Fidlschuster, M. Fischer and N. Said are experts from the ÖAR GmbH, Vienna (firstname.lastname@example.org).
H. Gassler, B. Ecker, S. Mair and S. Philipp are experts from the ZSI – Centre for Social Innovation, Vienna (email@example.com).
 Liaison Entre Actions du Développement Economique Rural
 The EU Horizon 2020 project Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (www.simra-h2020.eu)