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Establishing Democracy through local government: a training program for Poland.

With the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, countries in the area have begun the mammoth task of rebuilding their economies. What many people in the West may not realize is that these countries also must rebuild their local government structures and processes, most of which were subsumed under central government planning agencies as part of the communist system of control. In the fall of 1991, the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) was asked to participate in a project to promote democracy in Poland by strengthening one of the primary institutions that supports it: local governments. The project was sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (AID), the federal agency primarily responsible for distributing American foreign aid.

The GFOA and other organizations on the project team were given the task of working with the Foundation in Support of Local Democracy, a nonprofit organization established in 1989 in Poland to provide training in local government management. Four of its 15 regional training centers offer degree programs in public administration to students, and all offer a variety of seminars, workshops and evening courses for local government officials. The foundation wanted to develop training modules or courses in four areas: intragovernmental relations, personnel systems, management and organization of services, and local finance and budgeting. GFOA, along with the Institute for Policy Studies of Johns Hopkins University, was responsible for developing the training module on local finance and budgeting.

Training Approach

The goals in developing the finance module focused on the curriculum and the pedagogy. The training team wanted not only to design and deliver a course that was tailored to meet Polish conditions and needs but also involved Polish trainers in the process so that they could offer the course on a continuing basis. Accordingly, the finance module team made four trips to Poland over the life of the project: a planning session; the first course delivery, primarily by the American trainers; another planning session; and the second delivery of the course, primarily by the Polish trainers.

After reviewing GFOA's and other training materials and developing an initial conceptual outline for the course, the training team paid a one-week visit in March 1992, to Szczecin, Poland, the site of one of the foundation's two regional training centers. A liaison from the center in Lodz also traveled to Szczecin to work with the training team. The purpose of the trip was for the American and Polish trainers and the foundation training center's administrators to meet one another and decide together on the content, approach and audience for the first course delivery. The team visited local government officials in the area, telling them of the plans to offer a three-day seminar in public finance and asking if they would find such a course useful and what kinds of information they would like to have presented.

All parties agreed that information on budgeting represented the most urgent need of local government officials, many of whom were new to the process. The Poles were anxious to learn about all other areas of financial management, but the American trainers felt that the audience would become frustrated if too much material was presented without sufficient time to adequately explain it. It was decided, therefore, to focus the course on budgeting and offer it to a mixed audience of local government policy makers (i.e., elected officials) and administrators, such as treasurers and accountants. For every topic covered, the course would provide both a theoretical overview and practical detail for implementation.

Offering the course to a mixed audience responded to a concern articulated by the Poles that the elected officials and administrators did not sufficiently talk to one another in their day-to-day affairs, nor did they understand enough about each others' perspectives and concerns. One of the goals of the course became to foster discussion and debate of issues among the course participants. The decision of the team to include both theoretical and practical information in the course content was made for much the same reason. The American trainers also felt that, without a theoretical framework and understanding of the broader purposes behind budgeting procedures, the Poles would not be able to understand their system or lobby to make changes in it. For example, in the section on revenues, it was decided to present not only the revenue sources Polish local governments currently are allowed to use but ones they are not using and how to evaluate them according to efficiency, equity and effectiveness criteria.

First Course Delivery

The first three-day seminars were offered in Szczecin and Lodz in June 1992. About 25 people attended each seminar. The American trainers taught most of the course, except for a section on Polish laws governing local government revenues, expenditures and the budget process, which was taught by a Polish professor of law and economics.

The participants in both courses were friendly, enthusiastic and eager to learn as much as possible. After they became convinced that questions were an important part of the seminar, unlike the more formal systems of lecturing with which they were more familiar, they asked a barrage of questions about American government and democratic processes. Some of their questions were fairly poignant for American ears: How are expenditures projected when inflation is increasing 30 percent each month? How are tax revenues projected and collected when state-owned industries in their communities are failing right and left? Other questions betrayed the difficulty of adapting to a new, capitalist way of thinking, as in "Why bother to try to collect property tax revenues if the taxes put a firm out of business, and the government will have to financially support the workers anyway?"

In addition to lecture and discussion, the seminar included several in-class exercises and a case study at the end that involved principles of a good budget document as described in the GFOA budget awards program. The student notebooks and overheads were prepared in English and translated into Polish. The instructors spoke in English, with an interpreter translating their remarks. Interpretation was particularly effective when the interpreter had read the materials and discussed key terms with training staff in advance of the seminar; when an interpreter was obviously not familiar with financial and government terminology, the interpretation was less than helpful. There were some difficulties associated with the translation of the written material, primarily due to the specialized nature of the language and concepts. One example was when someone asked if health care budgets and expenditures were being described. Mystified by the question, trainers responded that their comments were general in nature and, while they certainly could be applied to health care expenditures, were intended to cover a wide array of governmental products and services. When someone more boldly asked why hospital and operating room budgets were constantly referred to in the text, it became clear how the discussion of operating budgets had been translated.

In spite of the difficulties with the language, the consensus from the course evaluations, foundation officials, and Polish and American trainers was that the course had successfully exposed the participants to a range of new concepts and attitudes. Now the goal was to have the Polish trainers assume ownership of the course materials and offer the course a second time and again in the future.

Second Planning Session

In October 1992, the American trainers returned to Poland for a week of meetings with training center officials and the Polish trainers: two university professors from Lodz and two local government officials from Szczecin, one of whom was also a professor at a local university. The trainers had spent the summer reviewing the course materials, and wanted to make sure they understood all of the concepts being presented. Capital budgeting, and the notion of separating it from the operating budget and of making a "rolling" five-year plan that gets updated every year, was a particularly difficult concept for them and required more explanation. In addition, the Polish trainers wanted to expose their future audiences to the concepts of cash and debt management, so brief introductions on those topics would be included in the next course.

Discussion centered on the audience for the future course and on the level of detail to be presented. The professors from Lodz thought the exchanges and mix in audience of policy makers and administrators were valuable and wanted to keep the course content approximately the same. The local government officials from Szczecin wanted to tailor the course to the treasurers and the officials most directly responsible for development and implementation of the budget, and to develop more forms and detailed instructions of procedures to follow. To compromise, two versions of the course would be developed with each set of trainers making the necessary modifications to meet the needs of their intended audiences.

Second Course Delivery

In late May 1993, GFOA staff returned to Szczecin to participate in the course delivered for the first time by the Polish trainers. The course had been developed by the local government officials from Szczecin and was tailored for treasurers and administrators. The GFOA staff served as a resource for the instructors and evaluated for the U.S. AID how successfully the concepts and materials had been transferred and absorbed by the Polish participants. The lectures and discussions were translated into English for the American observers by the Szczecin training center coordinator who had worked on the project from its inception.

It was instantly obvious that the instructors had mastered the course concepts and had taken a lot of care and time in developing several forms and examples to explain and apply the concepts. They even found and demonstrated an American software package for performing cost benefit analyses of capital improvement projects. More importantly, the instructors appeared to have grasped the attitudes and philosophies behind the concepts that the training team had been trying to impart, such as the sense of ownership and flexibility that comes when one realizes that the main goal of a budget document and process is to enable a community to make its own essential decisions about the allocation of public resources. They understood that there are no right or wrong answers about spending decisions or about the exact layout of the forms used in the budget, as long as the information necessary to make decisions is in the document and is presented in a manner that is clear and easy to understand by both politicians and citizens.

Understanding that good decision-making is at the heart of the budget process, the other major concept the training team had tried to convey was that a community cannot make good decisions without good data. Moreover, "good data" begins with such basic information as the number of employees in every department of the government and a list of services or tasks they perform. While computers and other technology improve the efficiency of operations, they cannot substitute for basic data gathering. The Polish instructors encouraged the participants to begin collecting the basic data about their governments and operations rather than waiting for more computers.

GFOA staff felt rewarded to see that the Poles were beginning to realize that governments often have a choice about whether or not to provide a service. One of the Polish instructors wryly noted to the class that budget discussions should not center around where in the budget document to place after-school tutoring but on whether this service should be provided by the government at all.

Most rewarding, however, was when, at the end of the course, one of the participants remarked, with both awe and excitement in her voice, to an American training team member that she had never thought of the budget document as anything but a set of forms that had to be filled in and sent up to Warsaw. She now realized it was the concrete realization of everything the Polish people had worked for in overthrowing Communism--a tool and an opportunity for her and her fellow citizens to make real decisions about their community and its future.

Szczecin is an old port city of 400,000 people. It is located the Odra River, in the far northwest corner of Poland, only a few miles from the border with Germany and approximately 50 miles from the Baltic Sea. This region of Poland was part of the old Prussian empire and later Szczecin was a German city, known as Stettin, until immediately after World War II when it was returned to Poland. A statue of three soaring eagles, located in a city park behind city hall, represents the national symbol of Poland and the three generations of Poles that have lived in Szczecin since the war. Szczecin is a city with many parks, wide boulevards and handsome old mansions in a uniquely Polish style. The medieval portion of the city has a castle and fortress overlooking the river, cobblestone streets and many cathedrals. Distressing to western eyes, however, is the layer of black coal dust that covers most buildings and the deteriorated condition of most roads and public facilities. Like cities in other countries in the former Easter bloc, Szczecin has its share of row upon row of rectangular cement apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city.

Author JONI L. LEITHE, assistant director of GFOA's Government Finance Research Center, has led GFOA's participation in the U.S. AID-sponsored program described in this article. She also serves as staff to GFOA's Committee on International Relations.
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Author:Leithe, Joni L.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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