In August 2017 the Federal Minister for Regional Development announced reforms to the Regional Development Australia (RDA) programme. This was in response to the findings and recommendations of the independent review of RDAs conducted in late 2016. This article looks at what changes are in store for RDAs as a result of these reforms.
Current role of RDAs
At the moment there are 55 RDA committees across Australia. These committees have been operating for close to a decade with the primary role of developing economic plans for the regions across a 3-5 year horizon. RDAs have also supported regional development and facilitated access to funding and government programmes. The operation of RDAs is generally funded by the Federal Government, but they also rely heavily upon volunteers to serve on the committees. This has led to variable outcomes across the regions in terms of the success of RDAs.
Scope of the independent review
The Federal Government commissioned an independent review to look at the effectiveness of the RDA programme in terms of delivering its regional agenda, which includes programmes such as the Building Better Regions Fund and Regional Jobs and Investment Packages. The review considered three themes:
1. The RDA programme framework
2. The governance and administration of the RDA program
3. Alignment with Federal Government policy objectives now and into the future
Findings of the independent review
The review recognised the diverse nature of Australia’s regions and highlighted the significant changes that have occurred in the economic picture for regional Australia. This has opened up new opportunities and challenges for regional prosperity. The report highlighted the importance of shifting the focus from infrastructure investment to other elements of economic growth (e.g. human capital) in order to respond to these changes.
The review noted that the success of RDAs varied widely across Australia as did the co-ordination between the three levels of government in delivering a shared economic vision for a region. There was also some questions raised about the independence and role of the RDA committees.
in light of these findings, the review found that the Federal Government should still play a role in regional development but a fresh approach is needed. As a result, the review recommended the axing of RDAs by 30 June 2017 and replacing these with a new network of directors of regional development. The review also recommended the creation of a new regional business advisory board which would include a taskforce to look at the decentralisation of Federal and State government into the regions. A new fund would also be established (the same size as the current RDA programme) to focus on investment on human capital, technology, entrepreneurship and best practice approaches to regional development.
RDAs here to stay – for now
The recommended deadline for axing the RDA programme came and went without any formal response from the Government. The Government released its response to the review two months later – rejecting the key recommendation for abolition of the RDA programme.
Overall, the Government believes that the current RDA framework can be refocused and strengthened to deliver greater value to regional communities. The Government agreed with the finding in the review that the “the key value of the RDA Program lies in soft infrastructure—networking, facilitation, brokering and advocacy”, and that it is important for all levels of government to work together for the benefit of the regions.
As a result, the Federal Government will retain RDAs for now, with funding extended until 30 December 2020 – this will give the new committees three years to prove their worth. But there will be a renewed focus – with RDAs playing a more “active and facilitative role” in regional development. This means moving from planning for economic growth to creating it.
There will be no significant changes to the boundaries of RDAs and the programme will also continue to operate in the capital cities – even though the review recommended the Government focus on the “true regions” of Australia.
Changes for RDAs in the future
There are a number of changes in store for RDAs over the coming six months. This includes:
1. RDA committees operating under a new charter. The focus will be on economic development, job creation, investment and innovation with the mantra of “strong, confident and vibrant regions” driving the committees.
2. The RDA network expanding to external territories, such as the Jervis Bay Territory.
3. The RDA Chair, Deputy Chair and Committee member process becoming merit based to improve the capabilities and skill sets of the committees.
4. RDA committee activities being more closely monitored and measured to ensure that real outcomes are being achieved for regional communities.
5. Each RDA committee having a new fully funded position of Director of Regional Development who will be responsible for delivering the results (i.e. attracting investment and creating jobs in the region).
If you are interested in finding our more about the roll out of these change, then its worth looking at the FAQs on the RDA website.
Our thoughts on the changes
In our view, the shift of focus away from regional planning to a more active role in economic development is a good move – particularly if it is able to follow the same mantra of genuinely crossing-over local government boundaries. In New South Wales, the creation of “joint organisations” under the Fit for the Future reforms does however create further complications in terms of these roles, along with the various Government agencies.
It would be particularly useful if the RDA’s could create a more collaborative approach between local, State and Federal governments in regional development – particularly for high value regional infrastructure which relies upon aligning multiple funding sources to bring a project to fruition.
Only time will tell if the new RDA direction can have genuine results, but as always we hold out hope that they will be able to provide co-ordination and hands-on assistance for regional projects and not just another layer of bureaucracy.
If you would like to find our more about regional development in your area, please get in contact with Steve: