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HOME  E-library  Articles & Reports  5. Decentralisation
30.07.2002 | author: Oana Radu
Decentralisation in Romania. Some notes & remarks
Policies for Culture Journal, July 2002
Oana Radu
is Programs director of the ECUMEST Association in Bucharest, and regional coordinator for South East Europe of the Policies for Culture programme. She holds an MA in cultural management from the Dijon Business School, France. (oana.radu@ecumest.ro)
Decentralisation in South-Eastern Europe (and not only here) is one of the most important and difficult yet urgent issues currently to be addressed. Widely promoted as both an objective in cultural policy and as an instrument in achieving other policy objectives (such as increased access to arts and culture) throughout Europe, it gains a specific importance in the former communist countries, which still bear the legacy of a centralised system. Promoting decision-making as close as possible to the ordinary citizen and aiming towards a de-concentration of responsibilities and initiative-taking, the processes of decentralisation and their impact do however vary from country to country in SEE, due both to the characteristics of each country and to the level of centralised heritage.

In Romania the centralising legacy of the communist regime is still deeply felt more than one decade after the collapse of communism. Established either before or during the communist period, Romania’s cultural institutions have thus always been dependent on decisions made at central level, which makes decentralisation all the more difficult to tackle. The difficulty is increased by the rather large territory of the country as compared to that of its neighbours, which involves more than mere administrative measures. What is needed is also a change of mentality and the establishment of partnership and dialogue patterns between authorities at different levels and between the authorities and civil society.

I would like to bring to your attention the most recent developments in this area in Romania, specifically in the field of administrative and financial decentralisation of public cultural institutions, since the year 2001 has marked a new and important step in this field. The 2002 Budget Law marked the first movement towards decentralisation in the cultural field by the government that has been in power since December 2000. Seventeen public institutions, formerly under the subordination of the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs (MCRA), were decentralised to the local authorities.

A short history

Decentralisation in the cultural field in Romania, as previously and shortly noted in the October 2001 issue of the PfC Newsletter, has an interesting 11-year-old history with ups and downs and unexpected turnouts. July 1994 marked the centralisation of a series of cultural institutions that traditionally fall under the financial and administrative authority of the county authorities (i.e. County Councils). These were transferred to the subordination of the Ministry of Culture, which took over the financial responsibility for these public institutions. In 1996 the number of such public cultural institutions considered to be of national importance and functioning since ‘94 under the subordination of the Ministry of Culture and financed by the Ministry through its de-concentrated units in the counties, amounted to 139.

One of the first measures of the government which came to power in 1996 was to proceed, at the beginning of 1997, with the reverse process, devolving these institutions and their financial responsibility back to the County Councils, in order to “re-establish the rightful situation, create the conditions for a true local autonomy and release some pressure from the central budget” (Ministry of Culture, Cultural Policies and Strategies, 1999). Many other cultural institutions, however, remained under central subordination of the Ministry of Culture. Thus, in March 1998, when the organisation and functioning of the Ministry of Culture was revised, some 61 cultural institutions and 13 publications were still functioning under the subordination or under the authority of the Ministry of Culture.

After 1997, the reorganisation and restructuring of the Ministry of Culture and a renewed attempt to decentralisation has opened the way for a serious reconsideration of the difficulties involved (Ministry of Culture, Cultural Policies and Strategies, 1997-2000). During their last year in office, i.e. 1999-2000, the former team of the Ministry of Culture started to communicate with the cultural institutions and the local authorities on the issue of decentralisation, with the intention of identifying the specific context in the case of each institution, the interests, opportunities as well as resources of all parties, and to prepare further negotiation between the actors on the local level, culminating in these institutions being devolved from the central body to the local (be they county or municipal) authorities. These assessment and first-step negotiations were however not finalised in most of the cases before the end of the mandate.

The 2001 Decentralisation Wave

The government currently in power (since November 2000) has officially claimed that decentralisation of the public institutions is a priority in the field of culture and that it is a process to be implemented throughout its mandate. A decision to decentralise 17 cultural institutions was announced by the Minister in September (decision implemented by the 2002 Budget Law (1). Although the Activity Report of the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs (2001), stipulated that decentralisation of cultural institutions shall be preceded by “negotiation with and acceptance by the local authorities, taking into account their financial resources” this did not happen, which produced disturbances in some cases. At the same time, the local conditions and difficulties were not taken into account, which led, for instance, to a strike at the National Theatre of Targu Mures. The dissatisfaction voiced by the directors or members of cultural institutions thus decentralised at the end of the year 2001 are various. Some were concerned that decentralisation would reduce the importance of their cultural institutions from one of national interest to one of mere local interest, as was the case with the Astra Museum in Sibiu (2). Others were concerned about the politicisation of local authorities, fearing that their dialogue would be hampered by interests of political or even ethnic groups. Cristian Ioan, the Director of Targu Mures National Theatre, for instance, pointed out that this particular cultural institution should have been maintained under the subordination of the Ministry of Culture, at least for the time being, as the ethnic divisions may be used to support political interests inside the local and county councils (It must be noted that within the National Theatre of Targu Mures, there are two sections - in Romanian and Hungarian -, a case which is not unique in Romania). The status of this theatre, as he envisages it, should be similar to that of the Strasbourg National Theatre, the only national theatre (i.e. under the subordination of the French Ministry of Culture) outside the capital city.

Not least, the local authorities displayed their own dissatisfaction with this sudden decentralisation, as this would put financial pressure on their budget. It is true that the decentralisation wave was accompanied by the provision, in the 2002 budget law, of state budget allocations to be used by the local authorities in order to ease the financial overload that would appear from supporting the cultural institutions just taken under their subordination and responsibility. However, these funds are not sufficient to keep the decentralised institutions working; the amount being the same or less than the budget provided for from the state budget in 2001, without any adjustments to inflation. Each authority thus responded differently to this new challenge. In Timis County, for instance, where both the Opera House and the National Theatre had been decentralised, attempts were made by the County Council to transfer to the municipality some of its financial overload for some of the cultural institutions under its subordination at the moment, so that it could “take over” these two very heavy institutions. The attempt however failed, since the Timisoara Local Council was, in its turn, not interested in taking over such a financial responsibility. In both Timisoara and Targu-Mures, for instance, the allocation thus provided from the state budget could only cover, on average, the personnel wages until August. To refer to the same case of the Targu-Mures Theatre - when decentralisation was suddenly announced, the local authority did not accept to take over the theatre without any negotiations taking place, which resulted in a more than two month unclear legal status of this institution. As it was not subordinated to neither the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs nor to the local authority anymore, the employees could not receive their wages, although the amount had been provided for within the Budget Law for 2002. A crucial moment for decentralisation came in June 2002 when the Government continued with the reverse process by handing the administrative and financial authority of the Ministry back to two of these 17 institutions. (National Theatre and Romanian Opera, both from Timisoara) It was the result of pressure coming from the institutions dissatisfied with their new statute.

Nevertheless, there are also cases of smooth and successful shifting of responsibilities from central to local level, as for instance, the National Theatre in Craiova. This institution seems to have been more than satisfied with the new arrangement in terms of access to funds, while the local authority provided the political will and interest to include this institution in its “portfolio”.

I would like to refer, in this context, to some of the comments and recommendations made by the European group of independent experts in their report drafted in the framework of the European Programme of National Cultural Policy Reviews of the Council of Europe in 1999, at a moment when the prospect of decentralisation raised a few concerns. While it was in itself deemed desirable, the question put by the foreign experts concerned whether the pace and methods chosen to realise it were appropriate. In the report is was stated that the local cult- ural professionals who voiced their opinions “feared that the local authorities were not yet competent to take charge of culture; that the level of politicisation in some authorities would make life difficult for the institutions; and that, ultimately, the funding of institutions would be cut as local elected representatives sacrificed them to other priorities in times of severe budgetary pressure”. Another fear would be that in local decision-making traditional and conservative art forms would prevail. These questions and fears still seem to exist and they still sound as a warning to the fact that decentralisation is not only about devolving financial and administrative power to the local authorities. How should the decentralisation process be addressed then so as to best tackle all these problems? How to make decentralisation work once it is put in place?

What is urgently required in Romania is to create a framework for partnership and dialogue between all actors in the decision-making process, understanding by the local politicians of the importance of culture and not least the development of a body of experts at local level with good knowledge and skills to define and implement the local cultural strategy based on people’s needs, whilst keeping within the national strategy.

Key issues to be addressed

As mentioned above, the most important need and, at the same time, requirement to address is to establish a dialogue and a working partnership between the cultural institutions concerned and the relevant local, county and central authorities, in order to clarify the role and responsibility of each actor in the cultural development at the local, regional and national level, including in the area of financing the functioning and projects developed by these institutions. The French example of developing such partnership between public authorities on all levels which share responsibility is well-known; the new specific type of partnerships initiated in 2001 – the “protocols of cultural decentralisation” should be noted here – which aim to clarify the role of each public authority (national, regional and departmental) in the field of heritage and arts education, thus leading to an effective and coherent action in this areas (3). Similar partnership and dialogue patterns could thus be set up for a more effective cultural development throughout Romania.

Not least, any decentralising measure must take into account the local conditions and situations. Targu Mures and Timisoara have proved that, even if decentralisation is sometimes looked upon as the ideal solution, some situations may require a more attentive analysis. It may well be the case that a combination of measures or a smaller degree of decentralisation could prove to be the best solution. Thus, decentralisation cannot simply be launched unexpectedly and irresponsibly overnight, without analysing the local conditions; each cultural institution and its environment are unique and one package of measures may not apply to each and every of them.

When referring to partnership between all concerned actors, another issue that needs to be tackled is the status and functions of the County Directorates for Culture (the de-concentrated bodies of the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs, at local level), which are, at this moment, rather vague. The European experts suggested in their report that their role should be strengthened and developed as they have the potential to become the primary instruments of partnership between the government and the local authorities – relaying government policy to the local level and conveying local demands and aspirations back to the government. They could thus emerge as local centres of cultural expertise. Since the 1999 evaluation clearly new roles have been given to these institutions, primarily in the field of heritage. Suggestions of foreign experts are however still much needed.

As elsewhere, the problem of financing culture is a sore one and many local authorities consider themselves unable to take over the financial overload of the institutions they have been given. In Romania there is a special need to find a cross-funding arrangement between all levels of authority (national, county, local) – which would not be directed top-down but based on negotiations and adapted to each case and to the programmes and strategy of each institution. Equally important is the need to reconsider the way funds are allocated – it should ideally be done on a project/programme basis in a competitive environment. This requires, first of all, a different approach and a consequent improvement of managerial skills and efficiency of managers of cultural institutions, public servants and politicians. Secondly, such a change would imply serious legislative restructuring, including that with regard to the status of the artists and the social security measures available to them.

Aside from the financial aspects, it is essential to work together with the local authorities and to raise awareness and promote understanding of the role culture is meant to play in a community. At the same time, of utmost importance seems to be a fact stated as a priority in the Ministry's cultural Strategy for 2002 - the improvement of cultural competence at all levels, both in the public administration and cultural institutions. The role and weight of cultural experts and culture professionals in decision-making at the local level should also be addressed.

In this respect, it is worth mentioning an original institutional initiative that has been put into effect in the County of Arad – the Arad County Cultural Centre. The Arad County Cultural Centre was set up last year as a public institution under the subordination of the Arad County Council and took over some of its responsibilities in the field of culture. The Cultural Centre’s role is to recommend, advise, evaluate, analyse data and administrate matters related to the cultural activities of the County Council. Final decisions, however, are made by the County Council. The main objective of the Arad County Cultural Centre in the future would be to gain decisional autonomy and discretionary funds for cultural activities. This initiative could represent a good organisational answer to the perceived problem of politicisation or lack of specific expertise in decision-making on the local level, promoting at the same time a decision-making system where professionals in the field play an important, if not decisive, role. Another positive aspect of this kind of organisational set-up is that the institutions can attract private funds, where the local authorities cannot.

Another issue that needs to be acknowledged and addressed is that of the importance of the regional level. The intermediate administrative level is represented in Romania by the counties – 42 units (including Bucharest) – many rather small territorial units which cannot be expected to invest large funds, as well as gather competence and expertise in all cultural fields. In addressing cultural development “away from the centre”, stronger (and larger) administrative units are required in order to more effectively respond to important investments and projects, as well as gather competence and provide excellence. In this respect, what should be promoted at this moment in Romania are, on one hand, cooperation between counties and municipalities for the development of cultural infrastructure, projects and expertise, and, on the other hand, for the eight development regions – which have been set up beginning with 1998 as non-institutionalised frameworks of cooperation between neighbouring counties’ authorities – to increasingly promote culture on their regional development agenda.

Having briefly listed the main issues that I believe should be addressed at present in Romania in order for the decentralisation process to become a source of increased cultural opportunities and cultural development throughout the country, I would like to end this short article with a renewed stress on the need of dialogue and partnership between all type of actors, coming from all levels, in identifying the most effective way to address all these challenges.

Romania // Some Facts & Figures
Population: 22,364,000 million (estimate July 2001)
Surface: 237,500 sq km

Administrative Division: 41 counties and the Bucharest municipality which has the status of a county; 260 towns and 2688 communes.

These administrative units have local autonomy, with elected representatives both at the county level (County Council) and the municipal (city and commune) level (Mayor and Local Council). Both county and local authorities have responsibilities and discretionary powers in the cultural field. Cultural activities are usually dealt with by a specialized department within the County and Local Councils, which most of the times is in charge with other fields as well (education, sports etc.).

Central Cultural Administration: At the central level, the specialized executive body for culture is the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs. In order to implement its policies at the local level, the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs uses de-concentrated units in all counties, i.e. County Directorates for Culture, Religious Affairs and National Cultural Heritage.


(1) Thus leaving 36 cultural institutions under the subordination of the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs.

(2) Ziua Newspaper, 22.10.2001.

(3) It must be also noted, if reference to France is made, that a new category of public institutions – the établissement public of cultural cooperation – has been set up at a beginning of this year, precisely in order to create the institutional framework for specific cooperation between the State and local authorities. More information available at http://www.culture.gouv.fr.

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