The public project evaluation system has been in place in Hungary since 2016. This new system was introduced in response to the European Commission’s criticisms on the transparency of the selection of funded proposals. How far have the changes succeeded in eliminating the mistakes made so far and laying the foundations for a transparent evaluation structure? This is the question I seek to answer in this article.
1. Characteristics of the system prior to 2016
In the programming periods prior to 2016, a decentralised evaluation structure was in place, which was intransparent and allowed for misuse of the application process. The legislation in force at that time enabled for the involvement of external experts in the evaluation of EU projects. This meant that the evaluation was carried out on the basis of the “four eyes principle” by an internal evaluator (a Ministry staff member) and an external evaluator (a person with appropriate expertise).
Despite the fact that the evaluators had to declare confidentiality and conflicts of interest, the system was not transparent, as the names of the evaluators were not publicly available and their remuneration was mostly ad-hoc, without a single set of rules.
Furthermore, no special qualifications or uniformly required experience were necessary to carry out the evaluations.
2. The 2016 reform
The system for content evaluating of EU projects was reorganised in the 2014-2020 programming period. The new system was set up because the European Commission has expressed serious criticism in the transparency of the proposals selection in Hungary.
The previous, largely outsourced structure was replaced with a transparent, centralised system, in which the state uses its internal resources to provide the expertise needed to evaluate projects, independently of external market players.
One of the aims was to ensure that the evaluation is carried out exclusively by trained and experienced professionals working in the public sector. However, the detailed rules and procedures for the evaluation of proposals have not changed significantly.
The list of experts is publicly available, anyone can access the names of the evaluators and their subject areas online. Based on the four-eyes principle, only two public project evaluators can evaluate the content of EU proposals. They are independent and their final decision cannot be overruled by the Prime Minister’s Office, which has only the power to ensure the quality of the evaluation.
4. Who can be a public project evaluator?
Public project evaluation can only be carried out by a person working in the public sector, as a civil servant or as an employee of a public company. On this basis, the position of a public project evaluator is entirely dependent on a basic relation with the state or with a state-owned entity, and it cannot be carried out independently anymore.
Evaluators must have a university degree and at least 3 years’ professional experience in their field. In addition, evaluators must hold a national security clearance, they have to make a declaration of assets, a declaration of interest and confidentiality, and they shall take part in a central training course organised by the Prime Minister’s Office.
5. Nature of the legal relationship, conflict of interest
The public project evaluator is a special employment relationship established for the performance of a public task. The Prime Minister’s Office is the employer of the evaluators, which allocates the evaluation tasks and keeps the list of experts.
The Act specifies that the Prime Minister’s Office concludes a framework contract with the evaluator for the duration of the programming period for the purpose of content evaluating the applications.
The status of a public project evaluator, like that of a scientist, teacher, artist, editor or intellectual activity protected by law, does not create a conflict of interest with the basic status of the evaluator.
The experts are paid from the state budget, differentiated according to the size of the project. In some fields, registered experts can earn up to double the basic annual salary, and in exceptional cases even more. Thereby the state gives public employees the opportunity to earn extra income by undertaking project evaluations to supplement their earnings.
7. Material scope
The evaluation of tenders for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and municipalities, as well as the technical monitoring of certain public procurement contracts, shall be carried out through the public project evaluation system.
8. Practical experiences
The public project evaluation system is popular among government officials, civil servants and public employees, as they can earn extra income by doing extra work while also improving their professional skills.
Previous experience in evaluating proposals is not a prerequisite for entry to the state evaluation ranking. In many cases, the evaluators’ work requires more knowledge in their own field of expertise (architecture, farming, agricultural sciences, etc.) than earlier evaluation experience. This has led to a marked improvement in the quality of the evaluations, as experts with expertise in their own fields have been able to apply a different set of criteria to the evaluation of proposals.
Typically, there are evaluators in all subject areas, but the most popular are the social sciences (law, economics, humanities), and the least popular are medicine, arts and religious studies. Based on the evaluations completed so far, the quality of the evaluations is good.
9. Weaknesses of the system
The system is often too administrative, bureaucratic and does not take into account the volume of tasks when calculating deadlines. The evaluators are often employed by the Prime Minister’s Office, which also carries out quality control, so there is a conflict of interest in the performance of the tasks, which may call into question the objectivity of the evaluation.
In addition, the centralised and closed nature of the system does not allow the involvement of external experts in the process on a case-by-case basis. Since in certain cases a special expertise is needed, which is not available within the public sector, it can be necessary to involve external experts which could improve the quality of evaluations.
Finally, the public evaluation system only applies to certain types of projects where the applicant is an SME or a municipality, while the old, criticised structure remained in place in case of major road, water, IT and energy projects.
The public project evaluation system has succeeded in laying the foundations for a transparent evaluation structure, with qualified, independent experts working in a centralised structure, whose names are publicly available and uniformly remunerated. Experience so far shows that the system is working well, therefore it was a step in the right direction, towards a transparent, uniform evaluation of EU proposals, free of any external influence.
However, the changes made so far have only partially addressed the criticisms made in Brussels about the quality of the evaluation of proposals: for some proposals a completely new set of evaluators has been introduced, while for many proposals the old evaluation system has been retained.
On the one hand, the material scope of the system should be extended in the future to integrate proposals that have not been covered by the legislation, into the public project evaluation structure. On the other hand, the involvement of external experts should be allowed in the process on a case-by-case basis, especially for complex projects requiring a high level of expertise.
Author information:Diana Kun works as an EU project evaluator at Prime Minister’s Office. The views expressed in this article are the personal view of the author and should not be understood to reflect the views of the Prime Minister’s Office in Hungary.
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