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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Reform That Putin Should Push

The shortcomings of Russia's bureaucracy are legion, its incompetence is legendary. Therefore, the release of a report this week highlighting the ineffectiveness of the executive branch and its lack of discipline in fulfilling orders and instructions did not come as any great surprise. What is more interesting, however, is that the report was prepared by the Main Control Directorate of the presidential administration, the president's oversight body. And among other things, it shows that only half the orders issued directly by President Vladimir Putin last year to various ministeries were fulfilled by the assigned deadline.

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Hopefully, the report, which draws mainly on checks conducted in the Property Ministry, Finance Ministry, Economic Development and Trade Ministry, Transport Ministry and State Construction Committee, will not simply result in the head of state uttering the historical refrain "Who is to Blame?" finding a few ministerial scapegoats to sack and then engaging in some populist fulminations about how lazy or incompetent or corrupt the country's civil servants are.

Problems in the government administrative machine and civil service are systemic and can only be dealt with as such. The report exposes some of the symptoms, but does not uncover the root causes of the disease, of which there are several.

First is the poorly defined and often overlapping roles and responsibilities of different agencies within the executive branch. Despite the Putin administration's rhetoric about strengthening the "power vertical," almost nothing has been done to make a very fuzzy chain of executive command more clear-cut. There is duplication (and sometimes even triplication) of functions and competencies between the presidential administration, the apparatus of the government and the ministries. The result is chronic bureaucratic wrangling and documents needing endless stamps of approval. Moreover, it brings out the worst in officials by encouraging the evasion of responsibility and buck-passing.

This bureaucratic muddle is a legacy of the Soviet Union. However, Boris Yeltsin did precious little to dismantle the system and streamline the apparat, in part because it actually suited him. He was able to consolidate his own position by personally arbitrating in the bureaucratic turf battles that ensued as a result of poorly demarcated competencies.

Bureaucrats' meager salaries mean that there is a dearth of qualified and competent personnel in the civil service. There are two particularly harmful consequences of this: Officials lack the material incentives to do their job properly, and have far too many incentives to use (or abuse) their position for the purpose of personal enrichment. Inefficiency and corruption tend to go hand in hand.

The above factors and the authoritarian political culture inherited from Soviet times have contributed to a system of decision-making that is far too top-heavy. Too many unimportant decisions are taken at too high a level in the state apparatus, resulting in bottlenecks and a slow and unresponsive administrative machine.

It is this nexus of deep-seated problems that Putin must tackle if he is to make an impact on bureaucratic inefficiency. He needs to undertake a major reform of the executive branch and create a more compact, better-paid civil service.

This is, of course, no mean feat. However, the potential dividends -- both economic and political -- are huge and the dangers of inaction on this front are grave. We have already seen how a number of Putin's reform initiatives have been undermined by bureaucratic incompetence and sabotage at the implementation stage (de-bureaucratization measures being one example).

Done properly, the reforms could have a direct, positive impact on ordinary citizens' lives and their day-to-day dealings with officialdom.

Putin, in his state of the nation address and elsewhere, has shown that he has a clear understanding of the problems and has indicated that he is committed to resolving them.

The decision to publish the aforementioned report on the presidential web site may well be part of a campaign to prepare the ground for reform.

Unfortunately, with parliamentary and presidential elections looming on the horizon, it is increasingly unlikely that Putin will bite the bullet until after he gets re-elected (as he surely will). Apart from not wanting to rock the boat, hiking bureaucrats' wages dramatically in an election year is not likely to be a winner with voters.

Nonetheless, administrative and civil service reform should be right at the top of Putin's agenda for his second term. And if he succeeds in pulling it off, that alone would earn him his place in the history books.