Saturday, December 27, 2014

Texan to Help Mongolia Sort Out Its Finances

AUSTIN, Tex. — Early next year, John Barton will step off a plane and look out over the snow-capped foothills surrounding the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator. It is one of the most remote corners of the world — and if all goes well, it is where Mr. Barton, a longtime budget writer for the State of Texas, will spend the next two to three years.

Mr. Barton is a resident adviser for the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Technical Assistance, which embeds American financial and budget specialists in governments overseas. He will be in Mongolia to share his budget-planning skills, honed over 30 years in Texas government working for the Legislative Budget Board, the nonpartisan agency that prepares the state’s biennial budget documents.

Texas has been fertile ground for these boots-on-the-ground advisers, with four, including Mr. Barton, from Texas; there are more budget advisers from Texas than from any other state, said an agency spokeswoman, Holly Shulman.

Sheila Beckett, a former budget director for Gov. Bill Clements and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, is now a senior adviser to the Office of Technical Assistance program. Previously, Ms. Beckett served overseas in the post-conflict Balkan nations of Macedonia and Serbia. Her job duties now involve looking for recruits, like Mr. Barton.

The prevalence of Texans in the program is at least partially explained by the size of the state — there are more budget writers to choose from. But Ms. Beckett also pointed to Texas’ early adoption of zero-base budgeting, which, unlike traditional budgeting, has departments start at zero and then justify their spending requests. She said the practice gives Texas budget planners expertise that is valuable to countries that have not used the process.

Larry McDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Technical Assistance, added that Texas is known as a national leader in budget transparency. The state’s geographic size is also relatable to a lot of the countries where the agency operates, he said.

The Treasury Department began sending budget specialists overseas more than 20 years ago. The department established the Office of Technical Assistance after the fall of the Berlin Wall to support Eastern Bloc governments as they moved to democracies and market-based economies. Since then, its scope of work has expanded to developing and transitional countries.

The office embeds American financial experts overseas in order to mentor their counterparts on good processes and procedures — not to influence policy, Ms. Beckett said.

Ms. Beckett described the resident adviser’s job as “capacity building,” working with younger staff members in foreign governments with the expectation that they will eventually rise to the top of their agencies.

“We work inside the government, sitting side by side with the government counterparts,” Ms. Beckett said. “Many of the other aid institutions are outside the government. They sit in consultants’ offices. They don’t have the access to the government workers that the Treasury advisers do.”

Mr. Barton expects few similarities between Texas and Mongolia. Geographically, the country is bigger than Texas — and at 3.2 million residents, it has roughly an eighth of Texas’ population. A third of those Mongolians still maintain the country’s traditional nomadic lifestyle.

Add a severe language barrier — “Rosetta Stone does not offer Mongolian,” Mr. Barton said, joking — and the new posting feels particularly daunting. But Mr. Barton said it was a thrilling midcareer move.

“This kind of opportunity is such that I’d be happy to show up with a sleeping bag and a couple of bottles of hot sauce and work for free,” Mr. Barton said.

jreynolds@texastribune. org

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