Jan 3, 2023

Learning Never Stops

We enjoyed talking to Vesna Cvetanova about her experience attending available learning opportunities within the multi-beneficiary capacity development project “Structural Reforms Better Integrated Within Fiscal Frameworks” (FISR2) funded by the European Union. Ms. Cvetanova, Head of the Macroeconomic Policy Department at the Ministry of Finance of North Macedonia, has been involved in the Economic Reform Programme (ERP) process in North Macedonia for several years. In this capacity, attending FISR2 learning events has been of particular professional interest to her as through this project we aim to strengthen the integration of structural reforms within fiscal frameworks in the ERPs.

What role do the learning opportunities under the FISR2 project play in supporting the smooth running of the ERP process in your country?

Strategic development of the human resources involved in the ERP process enables institutions to deliver measures that will change the economy and society by promoting people’s well-being and a conducive business environment. The role of the EU-funded FISR2 project, implemented by the CEF, is exactly building these capacities. 

The ERP process started eight years ago. Challenging one, it required a lot of effort and adaptation to novel approaches, practices, and collaboration. What we took as a basic principle when starting the preparation of the new economic reform program, and still abide by it, is that when institutions propose a measure to be part of the ERP, they should already include it in their budget proposal for the next period – the measure has to be part of a sectoral strategy and have financial construction. In the meantime, we formalized the ERP working group and start to build its capacity.

In the FISR1 project, we focused on the proper design of measures and assessment of their maturity. What proved to be a challenge was the identification of key performance indicators and the impact assessment of the reform measures. So, we think that FISR2 is just tailor-made to answer these needs. The interactive and participatory learning activities, which include not only the design of structural reforms and monitoring their implementation but also strategic planning and budgeting systems, coordination, and collaboration among institutions, provides for expertise that helps us address the challenges that we face in the ERP process.

The annual planning and coordination of the ERP process sometimes mean coordinating over 15 government institutions and communicating with the EC during negotiations, assessment, and coordinating assistance. What skills do you see as the most important to lead the complex ERP process effectively?

The ERP working group members are the nominated ERP coordinators representing the institutions involved in the ERP process. The role of the ERP coordinators is to be liaison officers between their colleagues and the Ministry of Finance as the national coordinator of the ERP process. 

The coordination process involves not only the ERP coordinators but also subject matter departments, budget units, and often ministers’ cabinets. It is indeed a complex process that includes a number of bilateral meetings with institutions to discuss possible measures, their design, implementation issues, and related challenges. 

To lead this process, first a lot of reading on each proposal is important, including background documentation and supporting information. You also need technical skills to discuss the proposals with line ministries: which problem is being tackled; how the activities are defined, sequenced and timed; what is the defined outcome of a proposal, risk management measures, and costing aspects.

Interactive approach in leading the ERP process through open and sincere discussions, patience to explain, trying to understand and being respectful are some of the essential skills for building healthy communication and collaboration channels. Commitment to the process, thinking beyond your own field of responsibilities, and constant learning are equally important. Last but not least – building trust. The ERP network is not only about the ERP process, as the liaisons established are formally or informally spreading on other processes, and collaboration continues via other engagements; for instance, Andrija Aleksoski and I have been invited to participate in various discussions on the future strategies to be developed or the activities to be implemented, not directly linked to the ERP process.

Recently you co-facilitated a country-specific workshop that addressed the dos and don’ts of the ERP coordination process. Can you share with us some of the most useful/meaningful takeaways from this event (work-related and/or personal)?

What I will always remember about this workshop on teambuilding is the positive spirit of the participants during the workshop. It was not a usual classroom workshop but included some new methods presented by Petra Založnik, which were more than welcome. 

Each year we prepare a work plan with detailed activities for the next ERP cycle. What was interesting and beneficial at the workshop was creating an internal work plan for the institutions and identifying micro steps that the ERP coordinators should be aware of, such as submitting the required inputs to the Ministry of Finance‘s ERP team in time. 

The dos include strengthening internal coordination, knowing the process well, proper time planning, efficient communication with the higher-ups in order to get feedback, as well as understanding the reforms and the EU Guidance Note. The opposite would be don’ts. 

As a co-facilitator, I was pleased to hear that my contribution to this complex process is praised by the institutions, and that they see me as someone who they can rely on and ask for advice any time. I also noticed that people need to be involved in innovative ways of sharing thoughts so that they can feel relaxed and yet have serious debates.

How does your ERP team respond to potential gaps in coordination, information flow, authorizations and collaboration in implementing the ERP process?

The teambuilding event stressed the need to closely follow the work plan in order to successfully manage the complexity of the ERP process. The work plan is adopted by the government after the Joint Policy Guidance are adopted, and the EC Assessment of the ERP and the new EU Guidance Note for the ERP are published.

Information between the Ministry of Finance‘s ERP team and the ERP coordinators is mainly exchanged via e-mail but we have also regular phone/online consultations or physical meetings. There is a constant need to send information, additional explanations, and reminders. You need to know the process well in order to keep the information flowing, and we are lucky to have Aleksandra Velkova in our team who puts a lot of effort into managing the overflow of documents, differentiating between the dozens of versions, checking their quality, and matching them accordingly.

The coordination of the process does not present any major difficulties in collaboration, except for the recent changes in the work group composition, due to members changing their jobs, which often affects the timeliness and quality of the document, and puts enormous pressure on the Ministry of Finance‘s ERP team. In that sense, we see the CEF as a partner who supports us throughout the FISR2 project to overcome these challenges.

What tools does your team use to keep great ideas flowing and to innovate time and again?

When introduced, the ERP process was a novelty for us as well as for the Commission. So we stick to the ERP Guidance Note as the main tool to develop the process. Retrospectively, I can say that the team has always been eager to understand the ERP – both as a document and a process – and its role and purpose. At the beginning, we put a lot of effort into compliance with the program requirements. 

The next level was content related. We started to develop new ideas based on the experience gained and the challenges that we had faced during the ERP preparation. Being closely involved in the stabilization and association agreement process, management of IPA funds, international cooperation, and coordination of various activities before the ERP process started, it was logical for Andrija and me to see the wider picture and interlinkages between various processes.

As the ERP was considered to have good potential, the EC and stakeholder expectations were towards more information to be included in the document, such as linkages with IPA funds, sectoral strategies and various assessments reports. Additional trigger was discussion with the line ministries to explain that the measures they propose are part of a certain policy matrix and processes, not necessarily separate activities for each and every process.

So, we started to link the processes. We presented the linkages of ERP measures with the key challenges, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Green Deal’s agenda, the digital agenda, sectoral strategies, and infrastructure projects with the main stabilization and association (SAA) processes, such as sub-committee meetings and conclusions. And the institutions involved not only understood the wider picture but started to contribute more content, and even started to use the ERP as a reference in other processes. 

As the main part of the document is limited in pages, we started to propose new annexes with the purpose of connecting various processes and explaining their usefulness. We are very pleased to see that the Commission has accepted some of our proposals. Sometimes it might seem that we want to include all the information available, but it always surprises us to hear from the stakeholders that something is still missing. Then again, it is also good to hear or read that the same stakeholders use the ERP to grasp a picture of the Macedonian economy, praising the quality of the document.

We keep great ideas flowing because together with the line ministries, we strive to keep the ownership of the process and build our capacities for improving its quality and the document itself. 

I would also like to take the opportunity to praise the hard work and dedication of all colleagues involved in the ERP – without them this complex process would be meaningless!