MONIKA DIMITROVA-BEECHER, HEAD OF OPERATIONAL PROGRAMME ADMINISTRATIVE CAPACITY (OPAC) MANAGING AUTHORITY: BENEFICIARY INTEREST IS UP, SO IS PROJECT QUALITY
Originally published in Novinar daily.
OPAC is the only programme financed by the European Social Fund that can really make a difference in terms of the administration's image and functioning.
Close-up: Monika Dimitrova-Beecher holds a Master's Degree in Law and International Relations from St. Kliment Ohridski Sofia University Faculty of Law. She has also completed law and public procurement specialization courses at Cambridge and Dublin Universities in the UK, The?Hague?Academie of?International Law, the Netherlands. She has a Professional Certificate in Management and Leadership from the?International Centre for Parliamentary Studies?(ICPS), UK. She has more than 10 years of professional experience in the state administration, having started as a junior expert and going all the way up the career ladder. In her capacity of Ministry of Finance legal advisor, she was part of the team that negotiated the Schengen instrument and EU pre-accession instruments. Since January 2011, she has been head of the Operational Programme Administrative Capacity (OPAC) Managing Authority.
- Ms. Dimitrova-Beecher, how is the fulfilment of this year's OPAC agenda going?
- I dare say that to date, OPAC agenda is being fulfilled according to schedule with some expected overperformance in terms of several changes to our Indicative Annual Agenda (IAA) for 2013. That is why we can report the fact that we meet the expectations of beneficiaries and end consumers of results under the implemented projects with the necessary flexibility and professionalism. In the aftermath of the latest amendments, the agenda includes 11 procedures for the provision of financial grants, of which 9 are already under way. August saw an increase in the total budget under municipal administration procedure from BGN 6.5 million to BGN 14 million. The reason for the proposed change was very strong interest and the good quality of the project proposals submitted under the procedure. In addition, the Ministry of Transport, Information Technology and Communications (MTITC) has been included as a beneficiary under priority axis II, sub-priority 2.2. The ministry is the authority in charge of e-government implementation in Bulgaria and has horizontal functions related to specific training of central administration employees in the IT sector. We have also added a new application procedure for MTITC with a budget of BGN 2 million. Meanwhile, we plan new changes in the 2013 IAA by the end of the year to include additional procedures or to increase the budget of existing ones so that at the end of the year we can have a contracted budget and hopefully a little more on top of it in order to avoid losses.
- What have you planned in particular?
- We seek to build on efforts to enhance central and municipal administration employees' qualification and expertise through targeted training courses. Therefore, we plan to include a new procedure under what is known as sub-priority 2.2 for Competent and Efficient State Administration. Central and municipal administration can apply under it with projects ranging from BGN 20,000 to BGN 90,000 for a total of BGN 2 million. We are also going to provide opportunities for specific beneficiaries in the judiciary system to submit new projects for the enhancement of competence and professional qualifications of judges, court assistants, clerks, prosecutors and investigators. To this end, we will introduce a new procedure under sub-priority 2.4 Competent Judiciary System and Efficient Human Resources Management with a total budget of BGN 3 million. The minimum grant will be BGN 100,000 and there will be no maximum limit. The Supreme Judicial Council and its Inspectorate, the Supreme Administrative Court, Supreme Court of Cassation, Republic of Bulgaria's Public Prosecutor's office and the Ministry of Interior are eligible for financial aid.
We will additionally open a new procedure aimed at improving administrative service, including through the development of high-quality customer-centred electronic administrative services. Under it, central administrations will be able to apply with project proposals ranging from BGN 50,000 to 80,000 for a total of BGN 10 million.
Seeking to build on the Single Information System for Combating Crime, we are now planning one more procedure targeting prosecution and estimated at BGN 2 million. It aims to increase the efficiency and transparency in the functioning of the judiciary through the implementation of automated information systems. And we are working on some other ideas as well.
- How do you assess OPAC performance at the end of the programming period?
- At present, the programme is faring really well. With projects under way and procedures to be announced by the end of the year, we forecast performance, and even overperformance in some cases, of the programme indicators. And this means that the programme has been delivering. In terms of financial performance, the budget contracted since the launch of OPAC totals more than BGN 293 million, or 82.9%, of which BGN 174.9 million, 49.5% of all OPAC funds, have been paid out. Eligible expenses incurred by OPAC beneficiaries since 1 January 2007 are currently estimated at nearly BGN 148 million. As a result of stepped up verification in the past two months, we have drawn up a new certification report to the EC requesting financing almost BGN 13 million worth of costs. Thus, this year alone has seen 4 certification reports with funds financed by the EC amounting to some BGN 135 million so far. For comparison, verified funds in 2013 so far amount to BGN 40.5 million, up by 30% on the entire 2012. As for contracting, since the beginning of the year, we have concluded 293 contracts worth a total of BGN 46 million. We plan to contract 100%, and even a little on the higher side, and fast-track verification in view of target performance and minimizing the risk of loss of funds. Meanwhile, July saw the release of a study of the need for over-contracting of the budgeted funds for maximum use of the OPAC budget by the end of the programming period. Our team is working at full throttle and I believe results are a good enough evaluation of the adequate implementation of the programme despite some slight delays in past periods. We are doing our best to attain the goals set, but still a lot depends on our beneficiaries.
- What does the study show? Where do the main problems lie?
- The main problems are related to performance of project activities, as well as imposing financial corrections resulting from breaking or abusing national and European legislation mostly in public procurement. Even at the latest project management training course - the kind that we regularly organise - I once again advised beneficiaries to take into account, when setting requirements to participants, the specifics of individual activities as it is necessary to provide reasonable and legitimate arguments justifying the participation requirements set. Also, they should carefully read recommendations we give to make it easier for them, as well as additional materials and instructions we draw up to help them.
- And what is the practical use of implemented OPAC projects?
- It takes more than just a few words to present the results. On the programme website, there is a close-up, including a rather detailed report on what has been achieved under OPAC. I can give specific examples. The Council of Ministers has created a web portal on student internship programmes with selection and hiring of students done entirely online. In just two months since setting up the portal, more than 600 students have undergone traineeship in the state administration. Under another OPAC project, the Geodesy, Cartography and Cadastre Agency implemented an electronic system for managing complaints, suggestions and signals, providing now access to services for visually impaired people and to foreign clients through online translation. The State Commission on Gambling, with OPAC support, has developed a new automated information system, electronic administrative services and electronic registers, and a Sofia region project involved making interim assessment of and updating municipal development plans for six municipalities. Analyses and recommendations made as part of the project underlie the new Strategy for the Development of Sofia Region in 2014-2020. We have also made short films and leaflets, which are published on our website. This is the only programme financed by the European Social Fund that can really make a difference in terms of the administration's image and functioning.
- What do you do to make things easier for beneficiaries?
- In view of accelerating project expense certification, the OPAC team has significantly reduced verification deadlines. Furthermore, regular meetings are held with beneficiaries to make sure they implement and report on projects correctly and submit payment claims. OPAC Managing Authority publishes reference books, instructions, information on common mistakes and guidelines for project implementation under the programme. After new contracts have been signed, beneficiaries undergo obligatory training on correct project implementation and minimizing the risk of imposing financial sanctions. Our team puts a lot of effort into increasing capacity and helping beneficiaries. We have recently created a brief handbook of practical advice how to avoid common mistakes. All specific recommendations and common cases are included in the documents that the OPAC team has especially drawn up to help beneficiaries. They are available on OPAC website. It must be taken into consideration, though, that the process is not unilateral and consistency is needed on beneficiary's part so that the efforts of everybody in the OPAC implementation process are not wasted.
- The current programme period is ending and at the moment, 2014-2020 programmes are being prepared. Will there be another programme for administration?
- Yes, it has already been decided. The programme will be called Good Governance and will build on OPAC results. It will include activities that are currently covered by Technical Assistance Operational Programme. The top priority, however, will still be policies related to administrative reforms, e-government development and judiciary reforms. The development of this programme has been launched a little later than most of the other operational programmes, but I truly hope that we, with our partners from the Council of Ministers, will be able to make up for the delay and the programme will be a fact within a few months.