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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civil Service Reform: For Real This Time?

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Halfway through what is still widely expected to be only his first term as president, Vladimir Putin made a renewed call for major reform of the government administrative machine and of the country's civil service system in his annual address to the parliament last month. This was greeted with skepticism in some quarters: Is this reform for real? If it is such a priority why has it been left until now? Is Russia's fabled bureaucracy indeed capable of being reformed?

There have been a number of attempts to reform the bureaucracy over the past 10 years. The first was in 1992-93, when a small group of radical reformers in the government's personnel directorate, Roskadry, developed a set of reforms very much along the lines of programs at that time being launched in some countries in Central and Eastern Europe (downsizing, recertifying all existing civil servants, and removing security apparatchiks from civil service positions). The response of the bureaucracy was swift and effective: Roskadry itself was simply and summarily abolished.

Then in 1996-97, deputy head of the presidential administration (and current First Deputy Prime Minister) Alexei Kudrin announced plans he had developed to dramatically streamline the government machine. This time, then-President Boris Yeltsin stepped in to thwart this.

Significant reductions in the central civil service were nonetheless achieved: The Moscow-based central civil service was cut by 10 percent from 1995 to 2000, from 33,800 employees to 30,300 employees. There was also a small reduction of around 2 percent in the number of federal civil servants based in the regions, from 382,400 to 374,400. However, over the same period the number of civil servants employed at the regional level increased by 7 percent, from 582,900 to 624,800.

So while it is true that the total number of civil servants at all levels of government has gone up over recent years (from 1.06 million in 1995 to 1.16 million in 2000), the staffing of central ministries in Moscow, already small by international standards, has been cut significantly.

Finally, in 1997 a concept for administrative reform was developed by a group of senior advisers to Yeltsin. Yeltsin himself in his address to parliament in 1998 devoted a significant amount of his address to spelling out the reforms envisaged. Yet nothing happened. None of the reforms announced were implemented. Will it be any different this time around?

There are a number of reasons why this time things look different. The measures enunciated by Putin represent perhaps only the tip of a reasonably sized iceberg. Significant effort has already been devoted to this set of reforms over the past 2 1/2 years. The original program of German Gref from early in 2000 as produced by the Center for Strategic Studies comprised three components: state reform, economic and structural reforms, and social reforms. While the latter two became the core of the present government's work program, the first was never published.

From media discussion at the time it was clear that the state reform program comprised a number of fundamental reforms: the development of the federal districts, intergovernmental fiscal reform, judicial reform, deregulation and civil service and administrative reform. The Gref team had looked long and hard at the lessons from development and particularly implementation of reforms over the previous 10 years in Russia. They had concluded that it would not be possible to achieve the results hoped for in the areas of economic and social reform without also implementing this set of radical deeper institutional reforms. And this view also chimed neatly with the conclusions then-Prime Minister Putin had drawn and summarized in his first major political and economic policy statement in December 1999.

So why then has so little been heard about this reform, while major attention has rightly been paid to related reforms such as judicial reform and deregulation? The answer appears to be that the reform team had understood the lessons from the earlier reform efforts in this area and had decided to approach development of reforms very carefully both from a strategic and tactical perspective. A lot of effort over the past two years has gone into building up within the government and the presidential administration a broad consensus around the strategic objectives for, and priorities of, reform of the civil service system, to create a modern, merit-based and corruption-resistant civil service.

A comprehensive concept for reforming the civil service was prepared by a team with broad representation from the administration of the president, the government and leading Russian experts and academics in this area. This was formally approved by Putin in August 2001 although not published.

The concept covers modernization of the federal civil service as well as regional civil services. Putin's order of August 2001 setting up a government commission on civil service reform, led by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and a working group led by Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the presidential administration, were however published.

It now seems that a detailed action plan for civil service reform has been finalized and that this should be formally approved -- and published -- within the next few months. Early priorities appear to be: to improve government decision-making capacity; to undertake a comprehensive series of functional reviews so as to align functions more closely with key priorities of the government work program and to eliminate, commercialize or spin off non-priority functions and all commercial services and functions at present provided by federal government structures; to initiate major pay reform, targeted at senior management and professional skills areas where recruitment and retention difficulties are being experienced; to revisit service decentralization; to strengthen internal and particularly external accountability mechanisms and institutions and significantly increase participation by citizens, service users and the private sector in decision-making; and to build a new culture of openness and transparency.

So this reform does indeed seem to be for real. The president and government appear extremely serious about ensuring real implementation of civil service reform. The reform itself has been carefully prepared and seems to command a degree of consensus that was lacking in earlier reform efforts. While this is extremely good and positive news, it is also of course the case that reforms in this area can take some years before they deliver results in terms of more effective policy analysis, development and implementation; improved quality of public service provision; and reduced corruption.

The business community can however do its bit to help accelerate the implementation of these reforms by demanding effective and appropriate behavior from the public agencies and officials with whom individual companies, banks and managers interact at all levels of government. The business community should also demand more effective participation and consultation on matters affecting the investment climate, should press for greater transparency of decision-making by government both centrally and locally, and should insist on greater accountability.

Complaints about the bureaucracy are legion and legendary. And skepticism about the present beginning reform will remain until it starts to deliver results. But now would be a very good time for the private sector also to try and help make a real difference.

Neil Parison is a program team leader with the World Bank providing support to the Russian government's civil service reform work and former head of the EBRD's office in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. The views stated are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the World Bank.