Jun 3, 2020

CEF Events: Where Theory Meets Practice

Ms. Nikolina Tomevska, an internal auditor at the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy in North Macedonia, joined us on both occasions when at the heart of discussions was the topic related to ways of optimizing internal control systems for efficient and higher absorption of EU funds. One of her expectations before joining the events was to learn about best practices from experts and peers in this area. We are happy to share some of reflections offered by Ms Tomevska on whether her expectation has been successfully met.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (MLSP) is a significant user of EU IPA funds in my country and the projects that are being provided through them are mandatory in our Annual Auditing Plans and Reports. Every audit process has the same basic guidelines and principles, but auditing in the scope of EU funds is yet more challenging, mostly due to the specific requirements of European regulations and internal procedures. Therefore, I am very glad that I attended the CEF learning events “Optimized Internal Control of EU Funds in Line Ministries” in February 2019 and “Ways to Optimize Internal Control of EU Funds” in February 2020, where I had the chance to gain practical knowledge from experts and colleagues in the region.

These learning events left us with several impactful takeaways. We started with a task where we had to decide which of the given controls are the most suitable for the specific situation and which of the audit approaches is likely to be the most effective. Afterwards, we had a discussion about the types of risks identified in every participating country as well as the design of the internal control systems. These activities were beneficial in terms of comparing whether the control measures can also go hands-on to solving problems in our internal control system.

Additionally, I would emphasize the review of the key risks and controls in grant contracts, as they are the most common type used in MLSP regarding the IPA funds. This review enabled a broader insight into the process of detecting risks, so afterwards I was able to apply the acquired information in practice by doing an audit on the monitoring and implementation process of a grant contract on enhancing the access of the disadvantaged to the labor market. The key benefit was the ability to expand the matrix of risks and possible controls related to the grant, followed by comparison with the risks and controls established in the Unit for Monitoring and Evaluation of IPA in MLSP.

We examined various investigation cases about suspected frauds, issued by OLAF, and discussed “red flags” that may lead to an investigation process. We also reviewed different investigation methods to determine whether a certain activity is fraudulent or not, and the measures issued by OLAF in accordance with the EU and the beneficiary country’s authorities. The “red flags” enriched my knowledge in terms of consideration of wider aspects of actions which can be signals for serious infringement of applicable law and where specific procedures need to be followed. As a result, I compiled a very helpful questionnaire on this matter when I came back to work.

What I really appreciate about these workshops are the shared lessons from the experience of our neighbor Bulgaria. It is crucial to know what we can expect (as we are aiming to be a member state of the EU) and what we can approve on time in order to achieve that. I would point out some of the factors: the importance of harmonization of national law with EU law where applicable; the value of strengthened administrative capacity; the efficiency and transparency of e-procedures and the quality and safety of the audit trail they provide; the significance of the simplification of rules for application and selection; the use of simplified cost options as an effective way of reducing administrative costs, and the avoidance of gold plating / overlapping controls.

The Bulgarian experience and the expectations for the next programming period reflected the essentials that may lead to both healthy and simplified internal control system. In my opinion, it will definitely be challenging to find the balance between sound financial management and simplification (we can all agree that the administrative burden is a big obstacle). In terms of simplification, I am firmly taking into consideration the method of simplified cost options in grant contracts, as well as the elimination of the controls with small significance. Overall, we constantly bring up the subject of results and sustainability instead of just using the money, especially referring to the 2007–2013 programming period when the rule of absorption “use it or lose it” was followed. Related to this, I am currently auditing the process of programming in IPA II (2014–2020 programming period), and I am not only aiming towards fulfilling the obligations of the stakeholders and the requirements of the laws and procedures, but also whether the programmed projects will truly give a strong and productive impact to the society.

The most interesting part of the workshops was the working session where every group had to draw its vision of the Internal Controls System in 7 years. This is also what I appreciate about CEF events – they use interactive and fun methods (quizzes, drawings, presentations, simulations, mixed groups, etc.) but they also incorporate the needs and priorities of the participants. CEF events are the place where theory meets practice and this is the best-fitted approach towards organizing workshops of this format. Ever since my first contact with the CEF (throughout the CIPFA certification program), I have been impressed by the professionalism demonstrated by the staff and the diversity of CEF events to give added value to the officials from the region in achieving their professional goals.

Moreover, I would like to point out the large framework of participants that the CEF creates. I am very proud of my hardworking, creative and extremely professional colleagues from the region, especially those from my own country, with whom, I am pretty sure, I will have strong and fruitful cooperation. The Line Ministries Portal is certainly an effective tool for easy share of information, ideas and opinions in the region.

Last but not least, I would like to thank the lecturers Aleksandar Hinov, Larisa Vukoja, Irena Kure and Milena Penevska for sharing their knowledge and expertise and also special thanks to Ivana Gašparac and Tina Žagar for the warm welcome and support throughout the workshops. I am extremely happy to have attended the CEF learning events in the charming Ljubljana and I am looking forward to further collaboration.

The events were delivered as part of the EU funded multi-country project “Strengthening Line Ministries’ Capacities to Assess Fiscal Implications of Structural Reforms” (FISR).