SNV/Albania Study Tour
SNV/Albania Study Tour
Tax Office, Public Information Office and Advisory Commission
SNV/Albania, Diber Team has a contract with the Municipality of Peshkopi to provide a number of advisory services. Specifically, two advisory service objectives were drivers for this study tour: 1) establishing citizen advisory commissions on a neighborhood level; and 2) improvement of tax management system: collection, transparency and communication with citizens. Within these objectives a number of specific activities were planned; but in neither case, was a study tour initially incorporated into the activity work plan. As implementation of the work plans have occurred, adjustments have been made based on new opportunities and new insights gained from implementing a prior activity.
In this case, as the tax management objective/project was being implemented, we hired a consultant to assist on the technical and legal specifics of tax forecasting, collections, management and monitoring, enforcement, etc. Two interesting developments emerged from this activity. First, the consultant(s) were a team of experts. One from a municipality with very practical knowledge and experience.1 The other is an attorney from the Albanian Association of Municipalities, a national capacity building and lobbying organization for local municipalities. We found that by working together with this specific client (i.e.: Municipality of Peshkopi) that we could likely develop complimentary2 and replicable advisory services, for other municipality tax offices throughout Albania.
The second development was that in Kucove, the municipality of one of our consultants, there is a very active Advisory Commission. This Commission has been involved in providing input on their taxes and budget. The consultant invited the Peshkopi tax office staff to come and see his operations in Kucove in more detail; and, he invited us to bring advisory commissioners along and he would ensure that they met some Kucove commissioners too. This second development is where the study tour idea began.
Another development arose independent of the above, from the networking that was taking place within AAM and the motivation of the Mayors of Peshkopi and Saranda. The Mayor of the Municipality of Saranda, invited the Peshkopi tour group to come and be guests in his town and to share with his staff our experiences with the Advisory Commission. (Saranda does not have a citizen advisory group.) In exchange, he and his staff would share their experiences/successes with tourism, a development area that Peshkopi wants to grow. t
1 This expert, the Tax Director from the Municipality of Kucove, is “heads above” all others in Albania. He is used by the U.S. Urban Institute as a consultant. Through his leadership and management, his office has increased tax revenue in Kucove by five times in approximately four years.
2 Complimentary service: SNV advisors attend to process issues and community transparency. We also initiate the work based on demand and need known fromour local government networks and we can provide on-going support/advice in areas tha we have teams. The AAM provides the legal expertise and training. They also partner with us in terms of LGt networking. Finally, the Kucove expert offers the hands-on knowledge and various technical mechanisms to make tax office/administrative improvements.
We confirmed the goals of the study tour with our client and agreements were made about sharing financial and logistical responsibilities of the tour. The goals were as follows:
1. To learn about how the municipality of Saranda developed a tourism office and how they are making progress.
2. To learn from the experiences of the Kucove municipality regarding taxes, tax systems, and how they made the changes. And, how the advisory commission participates.
3. To observe and learn about specific tax system administrative mechanisms, including software, forms and files.
4. To share and learn from the experiences of both municipalities (Peshkopi and Kucove) about the value and functioning of citizen advisory commissions.
The tour included two female advisors from SNV, the mayor of Peshkopi, Director of the Public Information Office, Director and Inspector of the Tax Office; and, 7 members of the Advisory Commission(s).3 Except for SNV advisors, all participants were male. One female commissioner declined the day before. We traveled in one mini-bus and the municipality car, with two drivers.
The trip started at 4 a.m. from Peshkopi and began fairly uneventfully, making good time toward our first destination in Saranda. Just after the national park in Llogara, complete with photo opportunities with the tame deer/fauna, the mini-bus broke down. From this point on, we were continually behind on our schedule, about a half a day.
In Saranda, there was a dinner (hosted by the Saranda mayor & staff) and staff briefings from their mayor, Tax Director and Tourism Director. The location of the formal briefings were changed to the informal dinner setting, due to our delays and a power outage in Saranda just as we arrived at the Bashki. Much of the learning happened through dialogues and conversations around the table. Saranda had an equal number of staff participating in the dinner as we brought along and each sat directly across the table from one of us (even the English speaker, was across the table for Fuji.)
The following day, we toured the archeological site at Butrint and stopped briefly at the castle. The night before, at the dinner, the Mayor of Saranda was fairly insistent that we “take in” at least one of their tourist attractions before leaving. The group chose Butrint, which was not difficult since the Mayor arranged a private tour guide for us. Consequently, we missed our 3:00 meeting in Kucove that day but easily re-scheduled it for 8 a.m. the following morning.
In Kucove, we were greeted by the Deputy Mayor, the entire staff of the tax office and the Chairman of their Advisory Commission. Over coffee, we learned about the progress in Kucove over the past few years, including the changes in the tax system and the market. Back at the Bashki, the Mayor joined us and we moved to the City Council Chambers for our meeting. The meeting with the mayor focused on the Advisory Commissions, their role and value to democratic processes, and transparency.
After the meeting, we split up: the mayors met together, the tax office folks went to the tax office, and the others toured Kucove and went to the market. We all met at the market about an hour later. Here we got a tour and description of the changes there and spent time in the satellite tax office at the market.
3 At this point, there are 10 neighborhood advisory commissions. Each has about 3 leaders (chair, vice and secretary-although not formally). Together, they make up about 30 members for the city-wide “advisory commission.” However, a city-wide structure has not been formally recommended or adopted.
Photos were taken and gratitude exchanged (as occurred in Saranda too) and the trip rolled-on to Peshkopi, dropping off the SNV advisors in Fier. We needed to attend an SNV meeting.
Highlights of the Trip
Overall, the goals of the study tour were met. And where we may have fell short in terms of the time lost in actual meetings (particularly, in Kucova), was made up by other experiences, learnings, and professional growth!
Highlights from Saranda included:
The professionalism of the municipality staff. The Peshkopi folks were very impressed by this and are still talking about it. We believe that they were role models for how people in public service can perform. Their pride in their community and their knowledge of their topics shined through in all of their conversations-they were great “ambassadors” for their community.
The gender balance/statistics in Saranda municipality were also impressive. 45% of the staff are women, including the Chief of Staff, Director of the Tax Office and Director of the Tourism Office. The City Council is represented by 33% women and the Secretary of the Council is a woman.
Peshkopi participants, particularly the advisory commissioners, were very honored by the Saranda mayor and staff. This increased their confidence and pride. Throughout the conversations, they listened to Saranda staff speculating and conceptualizing how to use an advisory group for their work in Saranda. (In the past, they have used experts in particular fields in ad hoc committees for advice.) We found this dynamic very interesting because it seemed that our Peshkopi commissioners were actually increasing their own understanding about their role, as Saranda folks speculated.
Highlights from Kucove:
Here, our group heard very specific stories about citizen advisory commissions and they received advice. In many ways it was good that they already had their role “built up” in Saranda, because they engaged in rich dialogue with the mayor, deputy mayor and chairman of the Kucove Advisory Commission. They heard stories of how the Kucove commission evolved and matured over time, which is good ‘realistic-grounding’ for our members.
o They learned how they can and should gather input from citizens and give input to the municipality (both administration and council) on topics such as taxes and the budget.
o They were told that they need to go to the city council meetings and listen and learn or they will never start making an impact there. And that their role could and should evolve into being of value to the entire municipality and not just the mayor and his staff.
o They heard the mayor say that he listens to his commission and almost always does what they say-but not 100% of the time. However, he said that he knows that he cannot go against their opinions too often or he would be out of a job. Our members were impressed to hear such things.
o They discussed difficult things too, such as how to handle conflict within the community. Specific to Peshkopi’s current conflict, the mayor advised them to “make the issue more public.” He encouraged them to speak up and speak out about difficult topics and issues and to not shy away from conflicts. It was their role to ask the tough questions and demand transparency.
The City Council Chambers/meeting room included chairs for the public (accommodating about a 30 person audience.) This generated a number of comments and ideas from our group.
An unexpected highlight, for everyone, was the public market. They have a satellite tax office inside the market so the vendors can pay their tax conveniently and the inspectors can
directly track/monitor as well. They showed us their impressive data related to tax collection and compliance, since they moved into the market.
The market itself was also a source of pride for Kucove, and it gave a long-range vision to the tour group. It was clean, secure (locks for individual merchants well as the whole market,) and organized and consolidated in one location.
A major indictor of change and success, in our opinion, were two “speeches” from one of the more skeptical and extreme advisory commissioners. In Saranda, he “announced” to the entire group at the end of the dinner, that he was not of the same party as the mayor; but from what he heard so far, he was agreeable to keeping an open mind and he would try to understand what the mayor was trying to accomplish. At the end of the meeting in Kucova, he promised to the whole group, that when he returned to Peshkopi, that he would talk to his fellow opposition party members and try and get them to understand and support the establishment of the advisory commissions.
On the return trip, the advisory commission concluded that it might be helpful if they added some members with some specific expertise. This could help with the quality of their advice and increase their overall knowledge. They discussed/are aware that there are many ways they could structure themselves in the future. Any new experts could be part of them (as members), or an appointed and specialized group(s) as needed. The mayor has given them the “freedom to choose,” (as this is still a mayor-initiated pilot). They decided to try and recruit new and motivated members and not to form “expert-only” types of groups because they believe that they have something very unique/important in the way they are organized as “average citizens from the neighborhoods.”
In terms of taxes and tax management, there are so many things that could be implemented similar to Kucove. Any one of them would be an improvement. Our fear is that the changes needed are quite large and that Peshkopi’s tax office staff might try to do all of them and become overwhelmed. This is where our on-going coaching and advice is needed. Our continued workplan for “tax management improvement,” includes technical assistance for the tax office and also the community participation piece. With the latter piece, we will likely braid it with the advisory commission’s development, assuming that the advisory commission development remains on our long-term contract with the Peshkopi Municipality.
We need to anticipate that tourism and economic development initiatives on the part of this client are “just around the corner.” The mayor was very excited about Saranda’s accomplishments and the advisory commissioners got a glimpse of what tourism can do for an area. We have opportunities to approach this in a manner that involves actors from all sectors. We need to capitalize on this opportunity because the community lacks experience in working together.
Recommendations for Future Tours:
Do It! If you think that it might not be worth the effort, think again. Peer to peer exchange of information and knowledge is one of the best ways that humans learn. Also, the “unexpected” can occur and it may springboard the group toward their next/future goals. Finally, you don’t have to travel too far from home to learn from experiential stories and gain new ideas.
Before the trip, have a “preparation meeting.” Review the learning objectives, discuss what you may see and hear, brainstorm some key questions, and recommend that participants consult others who may not be going on the trip to generate more specific questions.
At the preparatory meeting, assign each participant a “job.” For example, to take notes; to summarize what they heard/saw (maybe during the bus ride between stops); to prepare for the next stop by reminding folks about who they will see, the questions they generated, how much time they have, etc.(the agenda keeper); to write a report afterwards; to give a
verbal report upon returning; or others. Or similarly, assign each person a meeting or part of the trip/tour to document (take the notes for the group). This is an example from another SNV study tour.
Schedule a “return meeting” before leaving on the trip. This meeting can be somewhat social, maybe with picture sharing, etc. But, the main objective is to reflect and discuss learnings; to document the learnings; and to make decisions about what to do next. Next steps could include: preparing a more formal report to a larger audience; generating specific recommendations to another entity; taking actual action steps; or other. Since we did not have one of these scheduled, we are having many delays in trying to schedule one.
Stay with the group all the way home. Of course you cannot always have the ideal calendar or schedule. But, another 7 hours together in a vehicle would have allowed more time to debrief the observations, reflect and process the learnings. This opportunity was missed by the SNV advisors; however, we trust/heard that some of this did occur.
Anticipate that things take longer in a large group. Regardless of the breakdowns during our trip, everything (e.g.: lunch break) seems to take longer.