Mar 28, 2024

Driving Public Administration Excellence: Interview with ReSPA Director Ms. Trendafilova

In this interview, we had the pleasure of talking to Ms. Maja Handjiska Trendafilova, who has been leading the Regional School for Public Administration (ReSPA) since April 2022. Ms. Trendafilova shared with us some of the ReSPA's dedicated efforts aimed at strengthening regional cooperation, professionalizing civil servants, and fostering public trust in institutions across the Western Balkans. She also highlighted the value of our long-standing partnership and revealed personal motivations for advancing the development of modern, transparent, and participatory public administrations in the Western Balkans.

Can you share with us some of ReSPA's initiatives that support regional cooperation and knowledge transfer among Western Balkan governments, which you are especially proud of?

It is always challenging to single out specific ReSPA initiatives that bolster regional cooperation and knowledge transfer among governments of the Western Balkans, as all our efforts align with these objectives. Nevertheless, I will highlight several key initiatives: High-Level Policy Dialogues: Annually, ReSPA convenes key public administration reform (PAR) actors from the region at the highest political level, the European Commission (EC), partner organizations, and civil society organizations (CSOs) to address topics affecting reform processes that positively influence citizens' quality of life, business environments, and overall policy outcomes. Last year's dialogue, focusing on human resources and the public service sector, underscored PAR's pivotal role in sustainable growth and EU integration. Ministers reiterated their commitment to collaborative reform efforts, endorsing the Joint Statement "Attractive and Skilled Public Service Fit for Future". This commitment entails investing additional efforts in designing and implementing policies to make the civil service in the Western Balkans an attractive career choice, promoting youth participation and co-creation in policy-making and service delivery.

Learning and Knowledge Sharing Programs: ReSPA provides a diverse array of training and capacity-building programs, seasonal schools, regional multi-module academies and executive learnings tailored to enhance the skills and competencies of public officials across the Western Balkans, particularly in policy coordination, European integration, human resource management and professional development, service delivery and digitalization.

Emphasizing continuous advancement in knowledge sharing and fostering innovation, we collaborate closely with trusted partners and actively expand alliances with esteemed EU educational institutions, institutes, and academies like the European University Institute, College of Europe, EIPA, INSP, EKKDA, SNA, Hertie, and others.

Mobility and Study Visit Programs: ReSPA facilitates Mobility and Study Visits between the government institutions of the Western Balkans and EU Member States, empowering public administration teams to learn and exchange knowledge with their regional and EU counterparts. These initiatives enable participation in various regional endeavors, amplifying the regional voice in EU bodies, such as the Data Protection Board, Network of Directors of Schools (DISPA), the EIPA CAF Resource Centre, and the PACE initiative of EC.

Further to engaging in topical policy research in PAR-relevant areas, together with SIGMA-OECD, we also run a bi-annual Western Balkans Public Administration Award, recognizing and supporting exemplary services that prioritize the needs of citizens (people and businesses) and deliver tangible, positive impact to the life of our people. In addition to our networking and learning activities that have chiefly a regional approach, we have agile bilateral on-demand instruments, through which we support our members in delivering on the PAR agenda.

How does ReSPA collaborate with European partners to leverage (global) best practices, and provide research and recommendations for strengthening public administration institutions in the Western Balkans? What role does partnership with the CEF play?

Our commitment to partnership is ingrained in our organization's DNA, and we actively pursue what we advocate: uniting forces for the betterment of civil servants and citizens across the region. This approach is crucial for enacting substantial and enduring changes essential to the region's development.

In parallel with the continuous boosting of closer exchange and cooperation of peers within the region, ReSPA is putting a more prominent focus on collaboration with renowned organizations and institutions dealing with PAR, and with peers working in public institutions in the EU Member States to boost interactions and facilitate learning exchange on inspiring practices concerning PAR. By doing so, we aim to bring the civil servants from the Western Balkans closer to good PAR practices, thus bridging various implementation gaps and contributing to the European Administrative Space.

From our "natural partners", like SIGMA, to closer bilateral cooperation with Member States, such as Italy or France, from prestigious schools/institutes of public administration to regional organizations fostering cooperation and peer exchange and embodying true learning organizations, like the CEF, ReSPA facilitates the exchange of knowledge, skills, research data, and other essential elements, all aimed at empowering the civil servants from the Western Balkans.

We have a long-standing and valuable partnership with the CEF, which we have carefully deepened and expanded over the years. We see the CEF as an inspiring, reliable, and highly esteemed partner, who shares the common goal of boosting human capital in the public sector. Integrating each other’s perspectives in key activities and even strategic outlooks (with the CEF being a member of ReSPA’s Advisory Board), pursuing synergies in collaborations, and partnering in important initiatives (such as the Regional Mobility Programme, for which the CEF will host for job shadowing for some participants) are just some of the avenues we have worked on. Additionally, we eagerly anticipate establishing new secondment opportunities, further enriching our partnership.

In your opinion, what are the key factors driving progress in the professionalization of civil servants and building public trust in institutions across the Western Balkans?

In recent years, the Western Balkans have embarked on a significant journey towards professionalizing civil servants and establishing strong institutions to foster public trust.

Despite marked advancements, especially concerning service delivery and digitalization, implementation gaps persist, and the reform pace needs doubling down efforts. Several key factors drive this progress, spearheading transformative changes across the region. The accession to the European Union has acted as a catalyst for reforms, especially as PAR is part of the “fundamentals first” principle and an essential element within the Reform Agendas currently prepared under the Growth Plan. Increased regional cooperation and partnerships with international organizations have facilitated knowledge exchange and capacity building. Civic engagement, a vibrant civil sector, and citizen participation have been instrumental in holding institutions accountable and advocating for transparency, accountability, and integrity. Furthermore, investments in education and capacity-building have, to a certain extent, equipped civil servants with the skill sets and expertise essential to perform their roles effectively.

Embracing technology and digitalization has contributed to more streamlined processes, reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies and enhancing service delivery. The professionalization of civil servants and the cultivation of public trust in Western Balkan institutions are driven by a combination of domestic reform impetus, EU accession aspirations, regional cooperation, and civil society activism. These efforts leverage the potentials of learning, technology, and various other factors. Yet, there is ample room and well-grounded expectations to boost administrative capacities further. This includes advancing professionalization and meritocracy, ensuring managerial accountability, nurturing leadership with integrity, and boosting the attractiveness of the public sector as an employer of choice that pays undivided attention to the well-being of civil servants, their career development and life-long learning. Moreover, it involves encouraging exchange programs and mobility in the public sector, strategically addressing challenges related to demography and climate change, developing digital skills, and fostering a culture of innovation and experimentation. Expediting the reform momentum requires continued top-level political commitment from both governments and stakeholders to strengthen the human capital in the public sector, consolidate democratic governance, and foster socio-economic development in the region.

As Western Balkan administrations aspire to join the EU, they are compelled to align their governance structures with EU standards, necessitating the professionalization of civil services and institutional strengthening. Through activism and media scrutiny, public awareness of governance issues has heightened, pushing governments to prioritize reforms to build trust and accountability. Embracing technology and digitalization has streamlined processes, reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies and enhancing service delivery. The professionalization of civil servants and the cultivation of public trust in institutions across the Western Balkans are driven by a combination of EU accession aspirations, regional cooperation, civil society activism, and investments in education and technology. Sustaining this momentum requires continued commitment from both governments and stakeholders to consolidate democratic governance and foster socio-economic development in the region.

What motivates you personally to lead ReSPA's efforts in advancing the development of modern, transparent, and participatory public administrations in the Western Balkans?

Building strong institutions that can underpin growth and prosperity in a region that has had its fair share of numerous and long-standing challenges, and building the capacities of the next generation of EU policymakers are the main motivation factors.
I have dedicated my career to public service, regional cooperation and EU integration of our region. So now, from the position at the helm of ReSPA, I work relentlessly to position it as an even more relevant reform lever underpinning public administration reforms, which are instrumental for improved quality of life, competitiveness, and our EU integration path.

Seeing our region’s dedicated public servants, often the unsung heroes, integrated into the EU’s frameworks and boosting their skills to actively shape the common policies of tomorrow’s completed Union is worthy of all the energy and efforts vested. Empowering and witnessing the progress of the ReSPA team, and the cultivation of an environment where both personal and institutional growth is not merely encouraged but celebrated, and witnessing how our collective endeavors as a team yield tangible results in propelling the reform of public administration towards excellence in the region are strong motivation factors.

In essence, this entails embracing a culture of continuous improvement and innovation, with constant learning and knowledge-sharing as pivotal elements in the advancement of both ReSPA and public administration in the Western Balkans.
Ultimately, the crux of all motivational factors lies in people. No matter how ambitious our plans may be, their realization depends on dedicated and motivated staff, whom I am committed to nurturing. Conversely, everything we undertake as a ReSPA team is driven by the same goal – benefiting our citizens. Empowered human-centered institutions and people, not abstract notions of success, constitute my most potent source of motivation.

About ReSPA

The Regional School of Public Administration (ReSPA) represents a distinctive, regionally-driven platform committed to advancing public administration reform (PAR) by fostering policy dialogue at the highest levels, sharing expertise, facilitating learning opportunities, fostering networking initiatives, promoting public sector mobility and capacity building, conducting topical research, and meticulously analyzing policies. Established as a collaborative initiative between the European Commission and the governments of the Western Balkans, ReSPA operates under the stewardship of five Member States: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, with Kosovo* also benefiting from its programs. With a primary focus on empowering civil servants, ReSPA endeavors to catalyze the development of modern, transparent, and efficient public institutions capable of effectively serving their citizens and facilitating the European integration process in the Western Balkans.