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What does it take to modernize government administration? Lessons from Romania

Irina Schuman's picture
Also available in: Română | Русский
A woman works her fields in Romania. Many small farmers struggle to benefit from EU membership there.
PhotoAbel Halasz / Shutterstock.com 

Romania has transformed tremendously in the past decades.  Like its neighbors, the former transition economy has decisively committed to European Union (EU) integration. This has opened up great opportunities for both its citizens and its economy.  

This transformation has had a positive impact on agriculture and rural areas. The European Common Agricultural Policy provided a sound policy framework, emphasizing investment in agriculture and rewarding environmentally friendly farming. It also drove institutional change by introducing modern IT systems and practices for the management of EU funds, as well as by committing €24 billion for the Romanian farmers and rural dwellers through 2020.

Yet, the transformation has proven unequal in the agriculture and rural sector, as well as in the sector administration.

Why was this the case?

Firstly, the lack of a long-term vision to guide agricultural development has hindered change and limited the effectiveness of new policies. After years of transition, Romania still deals with a dual farm structure, meaning that 2.6 million small farmers (75% of the total number) operate only 12% of the country’s farmland - in contrast to some 13,000 large holdings (less than 1% of the total number) who farm nearly 50% of the country’s agriculture area.

Many of these small farmers struggle to benefit from EU membership. 

We found that operational deficiencies related to sector administration also hamper development.  While some parts of the administration modernized following accession into the EU, much of it stayed unchanged.  Services like extension, research, certain inspections and controls, testing, and data management remained affected by various inefficiencies, as did in-house business support services, such as human resources, financial management, and internal controls.

Our analysis revealed that these services were unnecessarily complex and lacked process automation, standardization, and performance monitoring.

Without a clear vision, policy makers in Romania have been inconsistent in addressing these challenges.

But in 2010, Romania’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development committed to improving its strategic and operational functions, reaching out to us at the World Bank to help achieve these goals. We provided analysis and advice, through a program that focused on two key questions:
  1. How do we design a sound sector vision and strategy, and track its results?
     
  2. How do we simplify procedures and automate processes?
The first question tackled strategic issues, while the second related more to operational matters within the administration.
 
Organizing our thinking around these two questions enabled our program to deliver on many fronts.
 
During the course of implementation, three results—and lessons – stood out for me:
 
First, building institutional capacity can have long-term dividends.

We worked with the government to build institutional capacity for strategy development, while facilitating the development of a long term sector vision and an accompanying strategy for 2020/2030 – with clear and measurable objectives and targets.
Our work focused on developing processes just as much as on delivering products. We assisted the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in reviewing roles and procedures in the strategy process, in clarifying how policy documents should relate to one another, and in conducting stakeholder consultations. The strategy document, which coherently ties EU and non-EU funded programs and services together, has gone through government consultations and received stakeholder feedback. It is now available on the Ministry’s website.

Second, strategic planning needs the right systems and processes.

We laid the foundation of a strategic planning system, which translates the strategic objectives into short and medium term action, using a performance tracking system.
Again, the process was just as important as the product.
We coached the Ministry working groups in mapping and breaking down the entire Ministry portfolio into programs, measures, and activities – all tied to long-term strategic objectives. Together, we ensured that clear targets were set and adequate resources assigned at each level. We piloted an IT module to demonstrate how all the results can be tracked electronically.

Subsequently, the Ministry developed an Action Plan for 2016. While simplified, it still followed the principles the program helped develop. The Ministry of Agriculture’s experience was later piloted in other agencies, with a view toward a government-wide rollout.

Finally, getting sector data right is a big piece of the puzzle.

We worked on creating a blueprint for an integrated data warehouse – which brings together all data managed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development under one virtual roof. We developed an innovative solution to the data fragmentation challenge - pooling together separate data sets (sector statistics, program performance, internal controls, and budgets) into a single information system.  We developed technical and financial specifications for the integrated data warehouse, creating an IT prototype that the Ministry could take forward, and trained their staff in using it.

Effecting any kind of institutional change—including modernizing government administration—can be a challenging task. The right vision can drive transformation. But it’s equally important to get processes right, find effective ways to make data and information more accessible and use technology to improve efficiency. Also, solutions and good practices can sometimes be found in-house; if so, it is important to recognize and scale them up, as this is a powerful way to bring about positive change.

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