|How to form a Local Action Group (LAG)?|
|What are the basic requirements for a LAG?|
|The LAG structure|
|The tasks of the Board and staff|
|Implementing the strategy|
|Effective project development and selection|
|Strategic project animation and development: Linking delivery to the strategy|
|The application process|
|Ensuring smooth project implementation|
|Measuring and documenting project results|
Why is effective project development and selection such an important part of the LEADER process? It may seem self-evident that it is through project activity the LAGs will achieve their objectives, but it is only through effective project development and selection processes that LAGs are able to select and support those projects which contribute most to achieving the objectives of their Local Development Strategy (LDS). The right projects are needed to deliver the desired outcomes.
The selection of projects to deliver the strategy is therefore one of the most important strategic functions which the LAG carries out and as such it is vital that this is carefully designed to align with the Local Development Strategy itself. There are four main elements – prior to the actual selection decision - which need to be considered, these are:
Project animation and development is a strategic process. The way in which projects are developed can have a very considerable bearing on the type and quality of projects submitted and their ability to deliver against your Local Development Strategy objectives. LAGs should therefore design and employ a project development process which encourages and supports the types of projects which can deliver their priorities.
The assessment criteria should be set out in the Local Development Strategy implementation arrangements and should be consistent with and directly linked to the territorial analysis and intervention logic of the Local Development Strategy, the SMART objectives and the proposed monitoring and evaluation indicators. These will include both technical and quality criteria.
The assessment process should be set out in the Local Development Strategy management arrangements and should be designed to enable well informed, objective and carefully considered decision making through a robust and transparent procedure. In the interests of transparency, appraisal criteria should be available and accessible to potential applicants.
Ensuring the transparency of the application and selection procedure is of the utmost importance in maintaining the motivation and trust of local actors. The application and decision-making procedures and criteria should be very clearly set out in the application materials and any associated publicity, where possible, staff should seek to ensure that these are clearly understood. Whilst the procedures themselves are important these must be seen to be applied in practice, it is essential that the LAG does what it says it will do and clearly communicates that to applicants.
Example from Scotland (UK): Multi-stage Project Application and Continuous Monitoring Scheme
Example from Greece: https://enrd.ec.europa.eu/sites/default/files/assets/pdf/leader-tool-kit/infosheet/03_infosheet.pdf
Once the LAG has had its Local Development Strategy approved and is moving into action, the next step in the development process is the preparation and selection of the projects through which the Local Development Strategy will be delivered.
How does the LAG ensure that the 'right' projects are initiated, developed and selected, the projects which are not only consistent with, but which will contribute most to, the achievement of the objectives of the Local Development Strategy? How can the LAG develop successful projects? What are the key considerations? What tools can they use?
Clearly it makes sense for the LAG to 'steer' this development process, to encourage the right type of applications and guide project development towards successful projects which contribute to the Local Development Strategy priorities.
The first thing the LAG will have to consider is the context within which projects are being developed; project demand will not necessarily match the objectives of the LAG and its Local Development Strategy.
There may be a high level of demand, but this doesn't match the Local Development Strategy or its objectives e.g. inappropriate or generic projects which lack strategic focus or links to the Local Development Strategy. Here the LAG needs to work with applicants, inform, encourage and steer, provide incentives for the 'right' types of proposals and actively support their development.
There may be a shortage of projects, a lack of momentum and motivation e.g. where there are economic difficulties and a shortage of match funding. Here the LAG can pump prime activity by supporting capacity building and developing some 'quick wins', small projects capable of rapidly converting into action, results and local momentum.
The best ideas may be the most difficult to deliver from the LAG and the project promoters’ perspective, innovative projects tend to be more challenging and complex and can be uncomfortable for local stakeholders. They often involve links to other ideas or initiatives, new connections, new contexts all of which increase delivery complexity.
Communicating the Local Development Strategy and its objectives and selection criteria is therefore a key animation activity for LAGs in generating appropriate and good quality projects contributing to the delivery of the objectives.
There are two main approaches which LAGs can employ in generating projects, they can either be proactive or reactive (although in reality many will operate somewhere in between).
Actively supporting project development and development actors is one of the key factors differentiating LEADER and other territorial development initiatives from more conventional mainstream approaches. Proactivity is therefore favoured as part of the overall approach, particularly because of the positive effects on the quality of projects it plays, by improving awareness of the Local Development Strategy and types of projects sought and then by supporting their development and delivery.
Providing information, however well this is done, may not be enough in itself to generate strong strategic projects. This part of the LEADER process needs strong, strategic and proactive management if good quality projects are to emerge. In addition to strong information and communications the range of possible tools which LAGs can employ to support strategic project development includes:
This pre-selection support is absolutely critical in making sure that it is projects which are fit for purpose that come forward for selection, after all, successful projects that help to deliver the Local Development Strategy is what local development is all about.
Example from ‘Mireille Groot Koerkamp: a Dutch LAG describes how capacity building and training is applicable for all Local Development Strategy stakeholders’
There are two main approaches to developing and selecting project applications, either:
Here we are dealing with the first approach, the conventional call for projects. In preparing to undertake a call for projects LAGs need to consider what method fits their Local Development Strategy best, they can employ either:
In the first two cases the projects are normally selected against the selection criteria identified in the Local Development Strategy, in the third case the criteria may be amended between calls to address evolving needs or budgetary considerations.
A two-stage application process is generally desirable. Using an expression of interest or initial enquiry for basic information can help screen out ineligible or inappropriate proposals before valuable time and resources are wasted.
Projects which are rejected at this stage can either be adapted to better fit the Local Development Strategy priorities or may be redirected to other more appropriate sources of support. For successful applications these forms help inform the LAG and its staff and engage them with the project promoter. They may then provide guidance and support in developing the full application.
In all cases the LAG may introduce some element of targeting; targeted calls can relate to:
In the latter two cases it is important to consider the proportionality principle in project decision-making.
There are two main types of project decision-making criteria which LAGs have to deal with:
Where CLLD is being implemented under the other ESI funds there is a requirement for strong coordination between the funds and Local Development Strategy, this implies strong harmonisation between the eligibility criteria.
Core RDP level eligibility criteria are the essential criteria that all projects must meet in order to be admissible for a further qualitative assessment. Commonly these relate to the eligible activities, beneficiaries and expenditure. Such eligibility criteria are normally assessed through a technical assessment, there are no threshold values applied and the judgement is absolute. Elements of this assessment may be carried out either by the Managing Authority or the LAG depending on the delivery system employed; ultimate responsibility for ensuring eligibility rests with the MA in all cases.
Local Development Strategy-specific eligibility criteria tend to be more associated with the targeting of the strategy in terms of area, beneficiaries or types of activity supported. These are normally applied by the LAG to ensure the consistency of project activity with the Local Development Strategy.
It is important that the eligibility criteria are applied to projects as early as possible in the application process. These criteria should be clearly communicated in publicity and application materials so that people know the rules. Projects should then be screened against them, ideally in an expression of interest or first stage application. This avoids wasted effort in project development and can provide an opportunity for project proposals to be amended if appropriate.
On-going guidance and support for project development should seek to ensure that full applications remain within agreed eligibility parameters or that elements which arise later in the development process, e.g. necessary permissions are addressed prior to presentation for formal decision-making.
There is a clear division of tasks between the LAG and the MA. The qualitative assessment of projects is under the responsibility of LAGs; in principle LAGs apply only their Local Development Strategy selection criteria. The MA cannot impose additional RDP selection criteria following Local Development Strategy approval, otherwise there is a risk that these criteria influence the LAG final decision.
LAGs are required under the 2014-2020 CPR to draw up, define and set out their Local Development Strategy project selection criteria. Good practice also indicates that LAGs should include selection criteria in their Local Development Strategy action plan. Selection criteria should be adapted to the specificities of the area and should be designed to assess the fit and contribution of project proposals with the strategy, its target groups and its objectives. These may be further refined in calls for project proposals to include criteria which are specific to one type of activity, area or target group.
These criteria must be capable of informing the LAG’s decision-making process and this implies both qualitative and quantitative judgements on the project’s desirability. Such criteria might include:
In order that LAGs may make objective judgements using these criteria it is essential that they are measurable and repeatable on a consistent basis.
Example from Ireland ‘Making Local Development Strategy goals easily measurable’
In addition to judgments on the project’s desirability in terms of its potential contribution to the Local Development Strategy objectives, it is also necessary to consider whether the project is actually deliverable. This requires a further set of essential technical checks which all LAGs should conduct and for which criteria should be set. These include:
The objective of designing Local Development Strategy-specific selection criteria is to optimise the decision-making process that helps LAGs select and award appropriate funding to those projects which can contribute most to the achievement of their strategic priorities in an impartial, consistent and transparent manner. It therefore follows that the process and criteria should be developed in conjunction and coordinated with the Local Development Strategy and associated implementation plan and that the criteria should be agreed by the LAG prior to their submission and implementation.
The effective use of an expression of interest or pre-selection process significantly streamlines the decision-making process and clear criteria at this stage are essential. Normally these would represent a simplified subset of the selection criteria as a basis for screening submissions, providing feedback and informing project development and support.
Local Development Strategy-specific selection criteria would normally include the following as a minimum:
One successful approach to the design of the selection process and criteria is to delegate this activity to a sub-group of the LAG.
In designing Local Development Strategy selection criteria, it is important that LAGs take adequate account of the different types and scale of projects and project applicants and the levels of financial support sought. This is of considerable importance for small scale actions or beneficiaries where, if a requirement is set too high, this may outweigh the potential benefit and act as a deterrent. Of course, this must be balanced with the rigour and accountability required.
Criteria should enable LAGs to apply the principle of proportionality in their decision-making, the way in which criteria are designed and implemented can enable LAGs to fine tune the implementation of their Local Development Strategy in line with priorities. For example, in the case of smaller projects LAGs may wish to consider setting a lower threshold or a modified or differentiated set of criteria. The weightings placed on different selection criteria can also be varied between different sizes or types of application, e.g. with regard to the amount of evidence required for small applications. Proportionality can also be addressed in the way in which criteria are applied, e.g. in the degree of precision or flexibility which is designed into the criteria and their application.
In designing selection criteria LAGs need to consider how these will be applied in practice, i.e. how judgements will be made in decision-making. Common approaches involve scoring of projects against checklists or within matrices; this therefore involves LAGs placing values against criteria. In order to provide a robust basis for justifying decisions, the way in which applications are assessed against criteria needs careful design.
In designing criteria LAGs should therefore consider their:
Many of the key points re’ project selection, the objectives, principles, bodies and individuals involved are set out in the previous sections of this document. This section addresses some additional specific points re’ project selection and reinforces some of the earlier points.
Providing information, however good and however much, may not be enough in itself to generate strong strategic projects. This part of the LEADER process needs strong, strategic and proactive management if quality projects are to emerge.
The design of materials should guide applicants towards an understanding of the Local Development Strategy objectives, the process and the criteria which will be applied. In animating and supporting project development, where possible staff should seek to ensure that these procedures and criteria are clearly understood.
Ensuring the transparency of the application procedure is of the utmost importance in maintaining the motivation and trust of local actors. The Local Development Strategy management arrangements should therefore clearly set out both the selection criteria and the process through which these will be applied. These should then be very clearly set out in the application materials and any associated publicity.
Whilst the procedures themselves are important these must also be seen to be applied in practice; it is essential that the LAG does what it says it will do and clearly communicates this to applicants. Effective feedback is important for project promoters so that they may improve or amend their proposals or understand why another programme or approach may be more appropriate than LEADER. The application of a two-stage application process is an important approach to consider here.
The selection criteria are applicable at all stages in the process, they are a fundamental element of the project animation, pre-selection, development and selection process, they also form part of the Local Development Strategy design process. They are a vital link between project actions and the Local Development Strategy, the needs it addresses and the outcomes sought. They provide a key management tool for the LAG to steer the delivery and achievement of its strategy. They should therefore be used not just by the LAG in making decisions, but also by applicants and LAG staff throughout the whole process.
Ultimately the criteria do provide the basis for decision-making on which projects to support and, in many cases, the amount of that support. LAGs use a range of different decision-making processes and criteria will therefore be applied in different ways. Some will formally score and/or collate these scores or votes in a matrix or template; others may discuss projects against the criteria and reach a consensual view. In some cases, the analysis against the criteria may result in recommendations or conditions being applied to projects prior to the award of support.
Whatever the decision-making process employed it has to be recorded to provide auditable evidence justifying the decision. This should show that the project selection criteria have been used in a way which is robust, repeatable and consistent and that the specified procedures, e.g. re conflicts of interest or the LAG decision-making quorum have been followed.
By designing the selection criteria into the whole Local Development Strategy implementation process and linking this to the objectives and indicators the LAG’s ability to monitor the progress of individual projects and their contribution to the Local Development Strategy is strengthened. This provides a basis for the on-going review of the progress of the Local Development Strategy and, if required may provide the justification for the modification of the criteria to address evolving needs or delivery in a transparent manner.
A LAG's project evaluation process should involve some kind of structured ranking system addressing both qualitative and quantitative aspects. This can be used to judge applications against thresholds or as a means of ranking and comparison. A widely used model is to give scores for each project selection criteria, i.e. ranking the extent to which the project implements or achieves each criterion. Scoring can be a staff exercise subsequently discussed and confirmed by the Board or Project evaluation Sub-committee or this can be (and is often) done directly by their members. This type of approach may be more necessary in the later stages of the programme period when resources become scarcer and thresholds for approvals necessarily rise.
Many LAGs have a continuous call for project applications and also a continuous (perhaps a monthly) project evaluation and decision-making rhythm. This makes it difficult to compare the quality of applications between different evaluation meetings. The problem can be alleviated by organising thematic calls for applications especially on such themes where the resources are scarce and only a few projects are possible during the whole programming period or later in the implementation period e.g. following a review of the Local Development Strategy.
Many project applications look great on a paper but the writers of the applications or the applicant organisations are simply incapable of implementing them. It is a duty of the LAG staff to explore and understand the background of the applicants, carry out a simple feasibility or risk analysis and report this to the LAG Board to inform decision making. The following things are worth checking and can also be required as attachments to a project application:
Support for innovation requires risk-tolerant decision-making. Sometimes the best ideas come completely unexpectedly: no one could have imagined them beforehand. The LEADER strategies and their associated processes must be flexible enough to include even the most innovative project ideas – of course after checking that they legally fit into the National Rural Development Programme's framework.
Example from Finland: a project evaluation form used by the Joutsenten Reitti LAG
It is vital to support the transition between project idea, selection and project action, successful LAGs understand this and nurture these projects, improving their alignment or fit with the Local Development Strategy together with their realism and deliverability. All good projects need time to develop and LAGs need to build this into their animation, application and decision-making processes, if these high value projects are to succeed.
After a LEADER project has been approved by the LAG Board it should not be left alone with its implementation process. Walking with the projects and their implementers and providing support from the first project idea until the last payment application is the LAG's core task.
Many LAGs send an info package on the day-to-day project management duties to the project implementers right after the project approval. The info package can be in a file format also helping the project documentation, with titled tabs indicating the information and documents necessary to collect and keep for possible audit visits of the authorities.
A responsible LAG staff attends the project level meetings as often as possible. The most important is the start-up meeting, where for example the project's financial procedures are agreed on. By attending these meetings and explaining the LEADER funding conditions the LAG staff can best prevent the applicant taking wrong steps in the project management. It is also helpful if the LAG staff are easily available between the meetings by phone or e-mail to respond to any urgent questions from the project implementers.
There are a number of guidelines and reports that have been prepared on the topic of Monitoring and Evaluating LEADER. We have referenced several of them below, which you may find helpful.