For many years, Johan De Cooman has been teaching the financial management module in the Master in Public Management at AMS. With established demand from government organizations and alarming reports in the media, we recognized the need to offer some broader, deeper education in this area. “With the new program in Public Finance, we want to give public finance a more prominent place on the agenda.”
Johan, who is one of the academic directors of the course, has been aware of the need for a while. “In Belgium, there are few financially literate people who are thoroughly familiar with government organizations and can truly assess and understand long-term developments in finance. As a consultant for a large number of public institutions, I’m quite familiar with the culture. The money in Europe, Belgium and Flanders is gone and my AMS colleagues Prof. Frans De Braekeleer and Paul van Sprundel and I felt it was high time to sound the alarm.”
"My AMS colleagues Prof. Frans De Braekeleer and Paul van Sprundel and I felt it was high time to sound the alarm.”
We should expect our government organizations to handle public resources responsibly. But public institutions are expected to do more and more with less and less money. Many policy makers and policy officers lack proper understanding of management and what the results mean for their organization. Those in a management or policy position need to be knowledgeable about the various management areas and able to make strategic decisions within them, without becoming an accountant or HR manager in the process. “We have a need for people with the right competencies in our public governing bodies to get to a more effective and strategic approach."
The Public Finance program takes a thorough approach. The course is structured according to the strategic cycle, so policy formation, policy implementation and policy evaluation are handled in that order.
“As such, ‘policy implementation’ doesn’t just refer to how a budget is technically drafted and implemented, but also looks toward the execution of strategic objectives: What do we want to achieve, when will have we achieved it and what will it cost us? Another objective might be: ‘How can our HR department function more efficiently?’”
"The program looks toward the execution of strategic objectives: What do we want to achieve, when will have we achieved it and what will it cost us?"
According to Johan, the relationship between the operational and financial picture is too often neglected. “A good example is the BOB campaign [to raise awareness of the dangers of drink driving]. We often say that ‘This campaign gained us 250,000 BOBs.’ But then the follow-up question is ‘What is the effect on the number of road casualties?’ – because that’s obviously the main objective – and ‘What did it cost us?’ To link a human life to a price tag is indelicate, but it’s actually nice for a civilian to know that a campaign like that means 5,000 fewer road casualties a year and costs us €104 ‘a BOB,’ for example.”
The new course welcomes participants from various levels of government (federal, Flemish, local). A significant proportion of the subject matter is taught collectively. That way, participants gain insight into what is going on at other levels of government and they’re better able to evaluate their own position. In addition, there is level-specific in-depth subject matter. “I notice that our policy makers and government officials need to learn how to put financial facts into context. They don’t need to become accountants, but they need to get back in touch with financial management and learn to better understand ‘the financial part.’”
“I notice that our policy makers and government officials need to learn how to put financial facts into context. However, they don’t need to become accountants."
The return on investment of a more knowledgeable government employee can’t be overestimated. “We try to turn our participants into a kind of internal consultants who are able to understand the relationship between financial and non-financial information. They have to write a paper based on a management question in their own organization. That way they should be able to repay their tuition several times over.”
What’s more, the course is designed using the “blended learning” principal. “We really take the travel needsf our participants into consideration. A third of the sessions are on location and two-thirds are from a distance (which takes many forms). Through regular Skype sessions, participants can receive very specific personal guidance. If we notice that a few participants have problems with a particular subject, we organize a meeting. So we’re really reaching out to the client and committing to work with them until we see results."
Based on conversations with students and alumni of the Master in Public Management, round-table discussions with the Court of Audit and people from all levels of the public sector, Johan expects this course to be in high demand. Despite the fact that the public sector is only slowly professionalizing in this respect, the sector itself is “the party demanding this expertise and we gladly undertake to meet that demand,” concludes Johan.
"We’re really reaching out to the client and committing to work with them until we see results."