How Can Ukraine Now Modernize?

QUERY | March 11, 2015     

How Can Ukraine Now Modernize?After Minsk 2.0, only an ambitious programme of reforms and heroic competence can heal, unite and bring the country into Europe whole

The revolutionary events of 2014, the subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections, and, of course, the military conflict in the Donbass – with over 6,000 people killed and more than a million displaced – have conspired to give unprecedented urgency to the need to enact transformative reforms to modernize Ukraine.

Ukraine is, in 2015, not only a poor country but indeed the only former Soviet state not to have reached the levels of development that it enjoyed when it became independent in 1991. Ukraine also continues to be one of the worst performers on international corruption indices. And if the quality and competence of the national civil service remain suspect, then local government across the country still remains merely formal or symbolic in character – that is, bereft of the substantive constitutional powers and policy and administrative capacities necessary for success.

There are four essential elements of a serious Ukrainian reform agenda that would enjoy a credible prospect of leading the country in the direction of new-century development: first, conclusively ending the military conflict in southeastern Ukraine and launching a real – not perfunctory or superficial – peace-building process in the country for a population that is both scarred and divided; second, deep public administration reform and modernization of the Ukrainian civil service in accordance with European standards (Ukraine’s elite Higher School of Public Administration is the standard – one that should be generalized across the entire national system of training and preparation of the civil service); third, effective anti-corruption measures and processes; and fourth, national decentralization (short of federalization), including the standing up of sustainable and credible local government in keeping with the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Let me treat these four elements in reverse order.

Over the past 30 years, the vast majority of European countries have successfully implemented various species of reforms to local government with the aim of promoting sustainable local development, as well as social and territorial cohesion. In Ukraine, the imperative for aggressive decentralization is driven by the following factors: very weak capacity of local government institutions in exercising their basic functions as defined by the constitution of Ukraine; overlapping competences and responsibilities between national and local authorities at each of the oblast (region), rayon (district) and hromada (basic commune) levels – caused and complicated by gaps and deficiencies in national legislation; contradictory and archaic administrative-territorial structures inherited from the Soviet era; devastated or otherwise dilapidated municipal infrastructure, hampering the delivery of quality services; the alienation of citizens from decision-making process; and, finally, very low public trust and confidence in authorities at all levels of the Ukrainian state.

How should Kiev drive decentralization of the state? First and foremost, further to the undertakings of President Poroshenko, there must be amendments to the constitution – in particular to create executive bodies for the oblast and rayon councils, and to redistribute responsibilities between local government bodies and national ministries in accordance with the principle of subsidiary. Second, there should be fiscal and budgetary decentralization in order to strengthen the financial capacity of local government. Third, the total number of administrative-territorial units – oblasts, rayons and hromadas – must be reduced, as there are simply too many of these for a unitary state that already has a weak centre, and too many to allow for local economies of scale. Fourth, various forms of local democracy should be promoted in order to stimulate citizen participation in public life at the grassroots. Finally, municipal infrastructure and, in particular, utilities – starting with those damaged in the war – must be modernized through new technologies, investments and management.

What about corruption – the national scourge, and indeed the scourge of the entire post-Soviet space? The fight against corruption in Ukraine should be rooted in the reform of the justice sector – for starters, by standing up a specialized state body or anti-corruption investigative agency to deal with corruption crimes in accordance with international standards. There must be improvement of existing procedures for the declaration and verification of income, assets and expenses, and also in respect of the prevention of conflicts of interest in the public sector (cross-pollination between public power and private sector advantage remains notoriously parasitic in today’s Ukraine). Transparency and competition in public procurement can be improved through free access to public information. Accountability and responsiveness in the management of public finances should be encouraged through the holding of regular consultations with civil society and international stakeholders.

What’s to be done about Ukraine’s civil service? Currently, outside of corruption, the civil service is plagued by high staff turnover; lack of professional skills and competence among most civil servants; low levels of public trust, as mentioned; nepotism; poor motivation; and, inter alia, inadequate management. First and foremost, there must be better vertical delimitation of the professional civil service vis-à-vis the political class. There must also be better horizontal delimitation of public service work vis-à-vis private labour, both in legal and normative terms. The new classification system of civil service positions will allow for a logical and transparent system of remuneration based on the principle of equal pay for equal work, and will help to address unfair interdepartmental and cross-regional gaps in the compensation of civil servants. To be sure, there must be improvement in the overall remuneration of Ukrainian civil servants if the country is to attract and retain the country’s best and brightest, and if they are to be kept motivated (and minimally corruptible).

On the demand side, Ukraine’s civil service system must move irreversibly to a merit-based approach to recruitment and promotion – one that assures civil servants stability of employment and protects them against discretionary dismissal. (It cannot be, surely, that each new government fires the entire senior civil service of the ancien régime – the current longstanding practice.) A bulwark of fiches de compétences should be used to evaluate civil servant performance, and professional mentorship within the civil service should be fostered aggressively in order to develop young civil servants into future organizational leaders. Finally, the standards and reputation of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) – which falls under the President’s aegis – will need to be buttressed in order to continuously drive innovation through the national civil service education system. As with the Higher School of Public Administration, all of NAPA will need to recruit the best from across the country and internationally, and the civil service and political classes will need to be systematically and culturally integrated into the NAPA recruitment and placement systems.

In the final analysis, all of these reforms should not be perceived as threatening to states neighbouring Ukraine – starting, of course, with Russia. For this, it will be necessary for Ukrainian leaders to conduct a professional awareness campaign inside and outside of the country. Indeed, coming out of the current war, we should reinvest in the creation of a proper trilateral EU-Ukraine-Russia commission (an idea originally mooted at the start of the Maidan protests in the fall of 2013) to assist in the modernization of Ukraine. For Ukraine will have to operate – and deftly – between its European and Russian gravities even as it integrates with increasing resolve and intensity into European structures.

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Vyacheslav Tolkovanov is Director of the National Scientific Research Institute on Public Administration and Local Government, and Professor in Ukraine’s Higher School of Public Administration. He is past head of the Ukrainian Civil Service.

(PHOTOGRAPH: THE CANADIAN PRESS / AP / MSTYSLAV CHERNOV)

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