AuthorDodescu, Anca
  1. Introduction

    During the 2007-2013 period, the real absorption rate of the European Union's (EU) funds placed Romania in the 'below average performers' category of the Central and Eastern European countries alongside Hungary, Slovenia and Bulgaria (KPMG, 2011, p. 9). At the end of May 2014, with a real absorption rate of approximately 43%, Romania ranked as the last among the Member States, facing the risk of losing 'a large amount of funding because of not being able to complete programs by the end of 2015' (European Commission, 2014, p. 210). In September 2015, according to the European Parliament, Romania registered an absorption rate of 62%, which placed Romania on the last but one rank among the Member States in terms of absorption, being followed only by Croatia, whose situation as New Member State is, in this case, irrelevant (European Parliament, 2016). On 31 March 2016, the Romanian Ministry of European Funds (RMFE) reported a real absorption rate of 61.57% for the 2007-2013 programming period (RMEF, 2016).

    In the general context of an alarming progress of the EU funds absorption in Romania, REGIO--Regional Operational Program (ROP)--one of the seven Operational Programs (OP) established for Romania in 2007-2013, and the only program managed at regional level, was the most advanced in terms of absorption until 31.01.2014. ROP had an absorption rate above average throughout the 2007-2013 programming period, almost double the average rate in 2012-2013. The absorption analysis for ROP shows a very slow progress between 2009 and 2010--from 0.2% to 2.04%, an increase of about 10% in 2011 compared to 2010, the same for 2012 compared to 2011, and more than double at the end of 2013 compared to 2012 (RMEF, 2016; RMRDPA, 2014; RNIS, 2013). On 31.01.2014, the ROP absorption rate was 41.52% compared to 26.49% --the average absorption rate for structural funds in Romania (RMFE, 2016). This significant advance has decreased up to present. As RMFE shows, on 31 March 2016, the ROP real absorption rate for the 2007-2013 programming period was approximately 64.75%, with only about 3% higher than Romania's average absorption rate (RMEF, 2016).

    In this context, the North-West Region of Romania (NWRR) reveals an absorption rate of 74.08% on 31.12.2015, ranking the second among Romania's regions, and also with the highest over-contracted ratio of 129.71%, as shown in the final evaluation report for the 2007-2013 programming period of the North-West Regional Development Agency (RNWRDA) from January 2016 (RNWRDA, 2016). Even more, the same report shows significant differences between the absorption rates specific to each area of intervention--63.93% for urban growth poles, 79.53% for transport infrastructure, 74.29% for social infrastructure, 97.63% for development of business environment, and 55.66% for sustainable development and promotion of tourism (RNWRDA, 2016).

    The main goal of the paper is to contribute with evidences to the theoretical evaluation of the EU Cohesion Policy 2007-2013 through the analysis of a specific program: REGIO--Regional Operational Programme (ROP), a specific region: North-West Region of Romania (NWRR) and a specific group of beneficiaries: public sector actors, especially local public administration. Moreover, our contextual analysis aims to contribute to the regionalization debate in Romania and it is derived from a broader study looking at ROP experience as the first exercise of regionalization which can substantiate future steps in the Romanian regional decentralization process (Dodescu, 2013). On one hand, this perspective was inspired by the questions recommended by the European Commission (EC) for the theoretical evaluation of the EU Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, especially: 'Why some programs have worked better than others?' (EC, 2012). On the other hand, it was inspired by the classical principles of decentralization (Stigler's principles, Olson's principles, Oates's decentralization theory, etc.) and the regional decentralization scientific debate (the traditional fiscal federalism, New Public Management, Public Choice School and Institutional Economics, 'network governance' approach, etc.) according to which small groups with strong interests are more efficient in absorbing public funds (Majocchi, 2008; Eaton, Kaiser and Smoke, 2010; World Bank, 2011).

    Our previous research on this topic addressed the ROP 2007-2013 areas of business environment and tourism and mainly private sector beneficiaries separately. We concluded that the strongest point of the ROP 2007-2013 in NWRR, in terms of absorption, is related to supporting the development of micro-enterprises because the beneficiaries from the private sector are the most receptive to the EU funding and ready to adapt to their challenging requirements. Even so, it's truly worrying that some of them declare that they do not want to access EU financing again. Bureaucracy stands on the first place in the hierarchy of obstacles faced by beneficiaries from the private sector, followed by financial and legislative issues (Dodescu and Chirila, 2014, 2013).

    The data presented in this paper are both quantitative and qualitative and are focused on the public sector beneficiaries, in general, and local public administration, in particular, as well as on the obstacles encountered by these beneficiaries during the implementation of projects financed by the ROP 2007-2013 in all areas of intervention: urban growth poles, transport infrastructure, social infrastructure, business environment, sustainable development and promotion of tourism.

    The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 provides an analysis of literature review dedicated to the evaluation of the regional policy focusing on the theoretical evaluation of the EU Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, Section 3 considers the research methodology used to address the research questions, Section 4 outlines the main findings of the research: document analysis and secondary data research findings, quantitative and qualitative research results, and Section 5 summarizes and concludes the paper.

  2. Literature review

    The development and improvement of evaluating methods of regional policy are major concerns of the EU, especially after the Eastern Enlargement. The DG for Regional Policy of the EC supports systematic efforts towards developing a comprehensive methodology for assessing regional policy, paying attention with priority to the evaluation of EU Cohesion Policy (European Commission, 2013). The most frequent approach of regional policy evaluation is the interactive approach, which emphasizes the need to see evaluation as a continuous interactive process which takes place in stages both before (ex-ante evaluation), during (continuous monitoring or evaluation), and after the end of the project (ex-post evaluation) (Armstrong and Taylor, 2000, p. 364). For the 2007-2013 programming period, during our research, the EU Cohesion Policy was in a continuous monitoring or evaluation phase (ongoing evaluation), as it is necessary to measure the effects as they occur. The continuous evaluation relies heavily on the information obtained from the monitoring system, but also on the ex-ante evaluation and on information regarding the background and its development. It focuses primarily on the results of the program which is evaluated, on the impact of the projects at completion, producing feedback directly within the program (European Commission, 2013; Patton, 2002; Furubo, Rist and Sandhal, 2002; Nutley, Walter and Davies, 2002; Armstrong and Taylor, 2000). In order to evaluate the impact of a program beyond the indicators and quantifiable effects monitored at the level of management authorities, the most common methods of theoretical evaluation are: surveys of beneficiaries, interviews, case studies, realistic and participatory assessment (European Commission, 2013, 2012).

    In Romania, the need for evidence about EU Cohesion Policy impact beyond indicators and quantifiable effects, particularly through surveys of beneficiaries and interviews with their representatives, is emphasized by the low performance in EU funds absorption. The general rules for evaluating OPs are provided by the European Council (EUC) Regulation no. 1083/2006, art. 36, 47-49, which states that ex-ante evaluation of the operational programs is the responsibility of the Member States, ex-post evaluation is the responsibility of the EC, and also that during the programming period Member States shall carry out ongoing evaluations linked to the monitoring of operational programs (EUC, 2006). Referring to the ongoing evaluation, art. 48 states that Member States 'may develop, where appropriate, under the Convergence objective, in accordance with the principle of proportionality set out in Article 13, an Evaluation Plan that specifies the indicative evaluation activities which the Member State intends to take in various stages of implementation' (EUC, 2006). Although the elaboration of such an Evaluation Plan is not mandatory, we notice the existence of an example of good practice in the management of evaluation--The Multiannual ROP 2007-2013 Evaluation Plan (MC ROP, 2008a, 2008b; RMDRAP, 2014).

  3. Research methodology

    The main research question addressed in this paper is: 'Which are the obstacles faced by the public sector beneficiaries that lead to ROP 2007-2013 weak absorption?'. The main question is derived from EC audit (RNWRDA internal data, 2014), revealing that the most important difficulties experienced by public sector beneficiaries in the implementation of ROP 2007-2013, which, moreover, have negatively affected the relatively good performance of the program, are related to the public procurement process. The serious malfunctions of the management and control system of public procurement--notified by EC audit--have generated an interruption of ROP 2007-2013 payments from June to December 2011 (RMRDPA, 2014; RNWRDA internal...

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