Delayed, buried in paperwork and lacking teeth- a portrait of the Human Capital Operational Program (POCU) from 2014-2020.
The POCU is the supposedly improved successor of the POSDRU – famous for all the wrong reasons. The POSDRU was able to absorb funds and distribute them to administrators and employees, but it was completely incapable of affecting real change in the communities it was intended to help. It perpetuated a bureaucratic machine in which work was done for the sake of doing work, but with no real results.
The POCU suffers from the same two congenital defects as the POSDRU, documented extensively with case studies:
Projects are approached from a narrow- minded, purely bureaucratic point of view. There is no room for cooperation between agencies or for beneficiaries to participate in more than one program. The advantage for the bureaucracy is that projects are easy to monitor and success is judged on paperwork instead of impact on the community.
The second defect is the tendency to absorb without impact. The system focuses on the activities that are the easiest to do, and the officials prefer this model as it is easy to implement. Unfortunately, the MFE encourages this through current guides. Shuffling papers are easier than visits to communities to check if, for example, the children are in school.
Additionally, the leading beneficiaries of the POCU are state institutions notorious for inflating budgets and calendars to get their project teams extra salaries. Entire institutions worked on European funded projects that overlap with their basic activity, for which they receive salaries from Romanian taxpayers anyway. What’s left? Methodologies over methodologies and personnel trainings. In the end, millions of euros earmarked for early cancer screening, is paid out to staff training and methodologies for years with no cancer screenings in sight.
What should be done?
SOLUTIONS. INTEGRATED PROJECTS In 2016 we demonstrated that poor planning can be partially ameliorated by launching integrated guides. The largest of them was the „School for All” guide – 193 million euros to decrease school dropout rates, bringing together the intervention axes mistakenly separated by the way the POCU had been programmed.
The final beneficiary of the money in this case must be the child. How do we keep poor children in school? Previously, you would have separate projects for training teachers, for transport insurance, and for hot meals. In practice, none of these things would even have been attempted – why pay to train teachers if the MFE gives you money for training teachers? Is it worthwhile to pick up poor children? To give them a warm meal? Despite having these goals on paper, each level of bureaucracy, each separate project would chip away at the amount of aid that actually reached the children.
„School for All” requires community representatives to start a school-level project chosen from a menu of activities (the same project covers the actual activity, but also transportation money, meals, supplies, counselling, and teacher training at the school level). This is available for the 500 most vulnerable schools to make sure that the money reaches poor children in danger of dropping out.
Hundreds of projects have been submitted to „School for All.” The PSD – ALDE governments took two years to approve them. TWO YEARS. As of November 2019, these projects are somewhere in the middle of the implementation period. According to the official reports from the Ministry of Education and feedback from a few beneficiaries, 75,000 disadvantaged children will be able to stay in school now.
Integrated intervention bears fruit. Some in the bureaucracy still chafes at the idea of excessive latitude and ideas growing divorced from reality. An NGO that has conceived a project targeting grade-school aged children and kindergarteners has received notice that a kindergartener can no longer receive help staying in school because he would end up receiving help from two different projects and he can only benefit from one project. On the other hand, some beneficiaries have said that most MFE monitors who come into the community really do care to help and they have compassion and go about their jobs with enthusiasm. They really care about the results of their work. In in the first case and in the second case, the monitors are treated equally and automatically receive a 75% salary boost. This brings forward another necessary reform at the MFE: the evaluation of project officers according to how client-oriented they are.
BORROWING BEST PRACTICES FROM THE PRIVATE SECTOR
Some successful funding lines from 2016 modelled on the private sector include: scholarships for teachers going to disadvantaged areas (according to the Teach for Romania model), paid internships for students from professional schools to practice in companies (borrowed from German companies in Transylvania).
We have avoided fragmentation in “School for All” through guides, but the long-term solution is a fundamental change of the POCU. The time to act is now, after the 2019 mid-term evaluation, with the support of European regulations.
Why is it necessary? The principle that European money is meant for the good of the people must guide us, and we can no longer rely on the good faith of ministry leadership. This principle must be embedded in the POCU DNA.
Let’s turn our attention to health financing lines.
Over 300 million euros are currently available to facilitate access to health services.
Romania currently takes first place in cervical cancer mortality in the EU. To get an idea of the scale of the issue, it would take 18 million euros per year for all women in Romania to be tested, as mentioned in Annex 2 of the Action Plan for 2014-2020 for the implementation of the National Health Strategy. POCU aims to facilitate access for those who would not otherwise have taken the tests.
With simplified costs, grass roots organizations could expand access to the test, fees could be assessed on a case-by-case basis. At this point, the system in place is run at an institutional level by the Ministry of Health and its subordinates. Every year, 2000 women die of a form of cancer that can be treated if caught in time. Screening is what is missing from the equation. In the course of a year, this mammoth program has only been able to establish methodologies for cancer screenings. No actual cancer screenings have been attempted. In the end, two similar (much smaller) programs for cancer screenings were launched, backed by Norwegian funds in partnership with the same institution. With smaller budgets, the two smaller projects were able to carry out cancer screenings. These projects are smaller, better able to cooperate with other organizations, and more capable of achieving their goals without losing track of funds along the way.
Let’s direct this example: the MFE through the POCU manages a program that aims to deliver screenings, launches a project with an oncology institute and after a year and a half there are zero cases tested. The MFE dedicates funds for the same purpose, but with Norwegian funds, in conjunction with the same institute and it works. The POCU is the problem. The POCU must be redesigned.
This is an extreme example, but not an isolated one. It is the POCU’s tendency to „absorb without impact.” European money is consumed by institutions to carry out routine activities, and the intended beneficiaries of the funds only see small glimpses of said funds, if at all.
Our proposals are simple:
Radically reform the POCU now. This is the time to act, in the middle of an assessment of the European budget- a third party, established assessor, outside of the influence of the MFE.
Simplify access to funds from the POCU. After the project has been approved, the funds should be released directly.
Expressly prohibit any money in any form from the project going to people working in public institutions who have no direct contact with the beneficiaries (social workers, teachers, or doctors working directly with the beneficiaries can be paid through the mechanism and performance based bonuses can be paid – but no money should be allocated to teams from the Ministry of Health, institutes, inspectorates, or county departments).
Change project indicators to eliminate any confusion about who the intended beneficiaries are. The intended beneficiaries are only the people the funds would directly benefit, not intermediaries, not state institutions.
EU funds are meant to benefit the people, not to perpetuate the bureaucracy. We deserve to see an impact on the economy, not more paper pushing. The principles and formulas we proposed in 2016 are the solution that will send the funds from POCU to the right destination.
This is the only way can we turn POCU into a respectable program.
CALL We call on Prime Minister Ludovic Orban and the Minister of European Funds, Marcel Boloș, to quickly restart the POCU to take advantage of the remaining 3.3 billion euros before the fund expires in 2023.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW – ARGUMENTS AND DETAILS
EU FUNDS FOR „HUMAN CAPITAL” BUT LESS FOR PEOPLE. WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
The Operational Program for Human Capital (POCU) is at critical mass, but it is still possible to salvage it, provided we act quickly.
If the POCU fails to target concrete activities in the concept and programming stage, we have only one chance: the year 2019, when, according to the regulations, an analysis of the program’s performance can be made and some changes can be made.
EXAMPLE 1 – „NO”
Health funds that fail to solve large-scale problems on a national level.
The current POCU includes a specific budget dedicated to the health field: over 300 million euros. The problem is that the funds are not directed to the dramatic situation on the ground. Specifically, a lot of training and training activities are funded, instead of the focus being on helping people – informing the public, testing, monitoring and so on.
These are the flawed premises that the program was based on at its inception. Although the axis that funds health measures is called „Social inclusion and poverty alleviation,” it was actually intended to make it easier to consume funds, not to increase the access to medical services for poor and especially vulnerable people in rural areas.
This programming is then followed by performance indicators. That is, we know if POCU has an impact. But the indicators are of the type: „Tools / procedures / mechanisms etc …”, „People who benefit from training / exchange of good practices etc., of which: the medical sector / the social assistance sector / the socio-medical sector / the educational sector” – etc.
These types of indicators such as tools, procedures, exchange of good practices are more than strengthening the administrative capacity of public institutions and could very well have been financed from the Administrative Capacity Program, so that POCU can focus on activities directly addressed to the final beneficiaries.
POCU should have very clear data tracking its beneficiaries: X number of women received screening, Y number of poor children kept in school, Z number of young people employed. Under no circumstances should any administration expenses factor into POCU performance.
What parameters will we use to assess the POCU in 2019? If data including administration expenses is used, it will show that the POCU is a success, despite 2000 women dying of cervical cancer every year and zero women having been tested since its launch. Will the MFE be able to declare the POCU a success based on skewed data?
SYSTEM FAILURE details: Cervical cancer testing and prevention
4,000 new cases registered annually. The highest EU mortality rate from cervical cancer: 2,000 women. Every year.
These are the circumstances under which the POCU project „Integration of primary HPV screening into the national cervical cancer screening program” has operated for 5 and a half years with a budget of 4 million euros.Project „Integration of primary HPV screening into the national cervical cancer screening program”
Implemented by the Oncological Institute „Prof. Dr. Ion Chiricuță ”from Cluj-Napoca in partnership with the National Institute of Public Health.
The total eligible value of the project is 22,811,228.48 lei of which EU funds: 19,260,738.02 lei.
The project is to be carried out over a period of 68 months, an it began on 11.05.2018.
The project manager is quoted in the media claiming that the over 4 million euros allocated to the project will cover development of methodologies for prevention and specialization programs designed to train 440 people who carry out the early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer. A year and a half from the beginning of the project, methodologies were developed and training was completed. The screening activity has yet to occur.
NOTE:the problem does not lie with The Oncological Institute or the physicians on staff. They applied for a financing guide that obliges them to complete methodologies and training. The Ministry of European Funds and the Ministry of Health designed the guide and are obliged to meet the international obligations for use of the funds (alignment with certain standards), not delegate this responsibility to the oncological institute. Rather than assigning blame to the beneficiaries, to participants in the system, any censure for failure to produce must lie with the MFE and their failure to properly administer projects. Ultimately, the responsibility of ensuring funds are used effectively and properly and effect tangible change is incumbent upon the MFE, not applicants and not beneficiaries.
The Oncological Institute has conducted two projects with Norwegian funds (one completed in 2017 and one in progress), carried out in partnership with a sister institute in Norway which focused on testing. Clearly, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities to realise testing focused intervention.
The guides made by the MFE and the MS must be reworked.
Consider these 4 simple steps by which European money could actually fund cancer screening:
Simplify the costs for testing.
Launch a call for projects targeting structures and organizations able to work directly in poor communities (mayors, churches, NGOs – anyone showing previous activity there).
Have the MFE require testing
The Ministry of Health and subordinate institutes either have separate projects or become partners in the above to carry out the tests AND to administer the cancer cases detected.
In 2016, we proposed a revision of the POCU and the introduction of simplified costs to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The process was initiated, and discussed with the Ministry of Health and the European Commission. A program review before the mid-budget evaluation (2019) is more difficult to execute, but the Commission was open, provided that Romania comes up with cost calculations based on each operation. We started these calculations, despite the opposition of the bureaucracy in the line ministries. After 2016, the process was not pushed within the government level but rather by the Commission. At the end of his term, the former PSD minister of the MFE announced that he had sent these proposals to the Commission. It took three years.
At the same time, the funds from the health component were mostly contracted on projects like the one above – we see a similar tale with other serious diseases, such as tuberculosis.
What to do NOW
1.SOLUTIONRemove the funds that remain otherwise untouched on calls dedicated to cancer detection and prevention
One solution, for the moment (2019) is to capitalize on all the funds that have the potential to be lost, for the 2014-2020 financial framework.
The funds can still be recovered, or in technical terms, re-contracted if the Ministry applies a rapid and responsible analysis and identifies the funds that are in danger of remaining unused.
Where does the money come from? Even if a good part of the European money allocated for health was contracted, from previous experience, only about 75% is put into action. In addition, EC financial corrections are added; and there may be discrepancies.
We propose an open public debate between the Ministry of Health and other relevant actors, in order to make more efficient use of these funds to meet the population’s concrete needs.
2.SOLUTIONRapid changes to the POCU, together with the conclusions that can be derived from the evaluation of the performance framework in 2019. The reorientation of the funds towards the aforementioned priorities – those urgent and concrete.
What do we learn in the long term?
The MFE launched a public debate for the future budget (2021 – 2027)
Let’s not repeat history. Let’s get it right from the start.
3. INNOVATIVE SOLUTION for the future
In order to recover from the delay in monitoring and testing the entire female population of Romania, the current bureaucratic and ineffective programs must be scrapped. We need a more immediate solution, and we can look to a number of member states with more efficient and advanced health systems. We can follow their examples by investing in personalized medicine systems.
How can we fight the disease of absorption without impact? Concrete cases
In 2016, right before the end of the mandate, we acted to repair the programming defects of the POCU through guides and to direct the funds towards those indicators that show a real impact on communities.
The POCU had been thought of separately and segmented – the axis for jobs, the axis for education, the axis for social issues, the axis for health – each with a multitude of specific objectives divided not on the logic of intervention – „why do we do this,” but on the types of beneficiaries or other restrictive criteria.
There is a bureaucratic reason why ministry employees prefer this segmentation, it helps them manage projects; however, the allocation of funds on completely separate financing lines and specific objectives, which also involves the separation of budgets, applicants and final beneficiaries, makes it difficult to create projects that really solve social problems.
Poverty is not organized in real life and does not follow the axes of the POCU
To give an example, let’s take a look at school dropouts. Why do some children drop out or not start school at all? Obviously, there is not a single cause. Poverty, lack of education of parents, lack of training or empathy of staff, distance from school – can all contribute and the list doesn’t end there. In most cases, addressing just one of these issues and ignoring the others will not keep kids in school.
How did those who programmed the POCU approach this situation?
They created priority axis 6 – Education and skills with six specific objectives, each with specific indicators allocated on a separate financing line; one for social intervention, one for teachers, one for preschoolers, one for schoolchildren, one for adults who did not complete their education. In rural areas with the highest risk of dropout, the respective schools could not apply to the POCU because the students did not qualify according to the guide. To effectively combat school dropouts, you must allow for more students to be eligible for more projects and for students to be able to benefit from multiple projects. As one student could drop out of school because of poverty, lack of parental education, and (not or) lack of staff empathy, so should that same student be able to benefit from multiply projects that tackle all of these factors.
In addition, the tendency was that only county or central public institutions were taken on as project partners – even the those with the least contact with the community. As in the previous SOPHRD, public institutions proposed projects with activities where absorption was easy and employees materially benefitted: developing methodologies, going to trainings and seminars. The kind of activities that are easy to do and verify, but with minimal impact for the children who drop out of school.
In this case study we see absorption for the sake of absorption. As a general rule the system tends towards the activities that are easiest to do, and officials also prefer this model because of its convenience (shuffling papers are easier than visiting communities).
Already defective due to extreme fragmentation of interventions, the POCU computer system was designed to remain segmented, to suit the way in which the management of European funds had been conceived. Each with its own square, in its domain, with its money and with its computer module.
What have I done?
We correlated the measures in the Integrated Poverty Reduction Package (which I launched when I was at the Prime Minister’s Chancellery) and expedited the disbursement of funds from the Human Capital Operational Program (POCU) for urgent measures in the fields of employment, education, health and social services. We prioritized the issues in such a way that would allow Romania to reach its assumed indicators for 2018 and avoid the risk of disengagement.
Some examples of our vision and what we changed.
These, exemplified below, are the solutions already tested to make the Human Capital Program truly feel its effects for people.
1.SOLUTION. INTEGRATED APPROACH.
Example: School for all
Continuing with the above example of school dropouts – is this a question strictly about why you teach and how good the teachers or students are? Or it is also about meeting the basic needs of students. Making sure they arrive at school school regularly and on time (a school bus when school is difficult to access), have appropriate materials (school supplies, clothing and footwear for an impoverished family) and have the necessary conditions to learn (sufficient teachers, appropriate classrooms, functioning buildings)? There are separate measures for kindergarteners, children in primary and secondary school, and for those who have left the traditional education system and are learning in Second Chance programs, and trade schools. When the same schools administer to all of these programs and when many parents have children from all these categories, is it more logical to maintain separate projects (with bureaucracy and the additional costs involved) to solve each part of the whole issue separately, or is a comprehensive project allowing all the interventions that are needed in a school from the same project more appropriate?
CRISTIAN GHINEA, 2016, on „School for All”:
„A program where we use European funds to take children to school.” For me, it is the fruition of the months of effort, starting with the Anti-Poverty Package and continuing at the MFE. „School for All” is ground zero for a new approach to school dropout policies. We also create a precedent: a short, simple, easy-to-understand guide – 20 pages for a call that gathers several specific objectives in a top-to-bottom program. There will be school-level projects, where each community chooses the measures that best suit it (…) In Romania, the dropout leaving rate is almost double the EU average, and the growth trend has reached an alarming rate . Rapid intervention is necessary. This is the beginning of an era where we will use European money for real impact in people’s lives – not for receipts and papers.”
School for all was the first „combined call” that we launched at the Ministry of European Funds in 2016. The call put 193.2 million euros into the market and in some ways revolutionized the traditional way of approaching European funds. I had to make a few choices – not without a fight with my own ministry and with officials from the Ministry of Education.
1.1SOLUTION. UNIT PROJECTS Instead of launching a grant for each measure and each target group of children, as understood in the POCU logic ministries, we chose to launch unit projects (which combined several specific objectives – one for preschoolers, one for students, one for second chances and one for teachers), which allows a school to support all its students with one project. To do this we had to innovate, and we launched the concept of „combined calls”, which united several specific objectives (OS 6.2, 6.3, 6.4 and 6.6) from the POCU, and reconfigured the previously been stratified IT SMIS system.
1.2 SOLUTION. EDUCATIONAL MEASURES alongside the SOCIAL ones
There is a flawed logic in the Romanian bureaucracy in which each ministry sees only its own piece. For example, the Ministry of Education occupies itself solely with the children who are in school. In 2016 we were explicitly told that if the issue does not concern school, it is simply not within the MEN’s purview. A question of poverty, even within school, must be the job of the Ministry of Labor. All things related to the nursery, must fall to the Ministry of Health. This is an explanation of the fragmentation of European funded projects. The MFE must pursue and impose integrated, not separate, interventions on the line ministries. In 2016, I was threatened with public criticism of funding guides by the MEN directors due to the inclusion of social measures. In their opinion, social aid measures for poor children have nothing to do with schools. They did not go public, but they propagated rumors that we refused to work with the Ministry of Education. Such an attitude must be amended at the political level – although ministers change, directors remain. The Directorates of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor are filled by a disproportionate number of insensitive, racist leaders, indifferent to the problems of poor children. This is not a blanket condemnation of directors, there are some exceptions, but the overall atmosphere of these agencies is derelict.
Instead of funding only strictly educational measures (standard educational activities, teacher training, grants for schools), we chose to fund socio-educational measures to facilitate the access of children to kindergarten and school and to help them not to drop out THROUGH THE SAME GUIDE. Some of the measures included hot meals, clothing and shoes, supplies, and access to a school bus if that made the difference between the presence or absence of children. To make this possible, an interpretation of the POCU guide that acted in the interest of the final beneficiaries and allowed the integration of two lines of intervention managed by different state institutions was necessary.
1.3 SOLUTION. I EXTENDED ELIGIBLE APPLICANTS from only school inspectorates to schools and town halls.
Instead of leaving the funds available only to school inspectorates and county institutions, as in the POSDRU (with huge amounts per project, lots of money for consultants, low impact on the ground), we chose to give the money to the organisations unequivocally able to help the intended beneficiaries. Schools and town halls are most familiar with local problems and their most likely solutions. These smaller, more targeted, more flexible projects were more able to impact local communities. Because of this, we allowed the realization of two types of projects – simple projects (smaller, local projects with budgets between 350,000 and 1.4 million euros) and combined (large projects – county, regional, national with complex activities and budgets between 450,000 and 2 million euros). About a third of projects were simple projects – applications made by schools, mayors and NGOs interested in solving problems in their communities, through small projects in one or two schools.
1.4 SOLUTIONS I gave precedence to schools with serious situations
Instead of launching targeted funds, at the risk of very little money actually reaching problematic schools, we chose (stubbornly) to direct them to schools with the most children at risk of dropping out, where the impact could be much higher.
We decided to attack the issue head on by creating a list of schools with educational risk – the interventions in these schools received additional scores in the evaluation. Criteria for prioritization included: a high number of students with a volatile school situation or children who repeat grades, a high percentage of unprepared (unqualified) teachers, a high percentage of 8th grade students who did not sit for the national assessment, the school average from the national assessment and the high degree of marginalization of the locality (according to the World Bank). The Ministry of Education balked at the label of an „educational risk school”, so the list was made by the MFE team (experts in socio-educational programs), along with two statisticians from the Prime Minister’s Chancellery and with help from specialized NGOs. More than 400 schools with the highest degree of educational risk, have received funding based on the evaluation grid. The list is not perfect because the data is difficult to integrate and has errors, but it was the first attempt of its kind and was generally received positively by the applicants. We will see the effects in a few years.
Instead of the work style in which we launch narrow interest guides, where central institutions invent projects that last for years without impacting communities, in order to collect an additional salary from the project, we launched the largest program to reduce school dropout rates. 193 million euros were applied to particularly disadvantaged schools, aided by mayors or NGOs, with activities that involve interventions that directly and tangibly benefit children, based on analyzes in each community as to what real needs exist.
Results for „School for All”
The appeal allowed the financing of practically any educational measure (after school activities, priority areas of education, second chance, extra-curricular and non-formal education, etc.), supplemented by social measures designed to increase the access of children to school (material support like hot meals, supplies, hygiene products, transportation), with support measures for schools (hiring support teachers or other specialists such as speech therapists, psychologists, and school counselors; and renovating classrooms and providing equipment) and encouraging school-family-community partnership. During the mandate of 2016, we organized public debates, worked for the development of the database of disadvantaged schools, debated the guide, then launched the call for projects.
By the end of 2016, 317 projects were submitted, totalling 1.9 billion lei.