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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting Rid of Steely Bureaucrats

There's a lot of red tape in Russia. True or false?

Bureaucracy in Russia is way oversized. True or false?

The answer to the first question is easy. The enormous amount of red tape that businesses and individuals have to deal with here is legendary.

But that isn't because there are too many bureaucrats running around. Federal, regional and municipal agencies employ about 1 million civil servants -- roughly one in every 70 adults in the workforce.

These are the findings of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, which has a long-awaited plan to cut red tape from the top on down. Under its administrative reform, in two short years the government will be hiring civil servants on a competitive basis and pay them according to their performance and efficiency.

President Vladimir Putin has spoken of the urgency of administrative reform in each of his last three annual state of the nation addresses. Senior officials have been hashing out reform plans for months, and the sometimes fierce infighting over the proposals has at times raised fears that the plan might in the end fall victim to the very thing it was trying to tackle: red tape.

But a plan has been hammered out and is finally moving toward implementation. Starting in October, a pilot program aimed at shaping the new face of Russian bureaucracy will be introduced in five regions -- Samara, Saratov, Krasnoyarsk, Chuvashia and Taimyr.

"To minimize the risk on the federal level, we will try to do it in the regions," said the government's point man on the reform, Andrei Sharov, head of the civil service department at the Economic Development and Trade Ministry.

"Then we will apply the new rules of the game on the federal level and make it the law for everyone," he said in a recent interview.

As the pilot program kicks off, the legal framework of the state machine is being altered or even rewritten altogether.

A draft of a new law on civil service, which among other things ensures hiring is conducted on a competitive basis, allows staff to be paid on performance and introduces measures to prevent conflicts of interest, was submitted to the State Duma by Putin in September.

"And all things considered, we could have an entirely new law on civil service in force as soon as July 1 next year," Sharov said.

Getting to this point has been a long, uphill task for the Economic Development and Trade Ministry. Over the past year, the ministry has identified for elimination regulations and powers that overlapped between agencies or were even outdated or unused. Many of them dated back to the Soviet era, and required ministries and other state bodies to ensure things like meeting quotas on rubber boots.

Now a special commission hashing out the details of the reform is tackling more challenging issues. The commission is composed of 600 officials from state agencies and businesses as well as independent experts.

In a key victory, the commission has won a voluntary agreement from the Interior Ministry to give up some powers -- including the right to halt the activity of a business on suspicion it has violated the law, Sharov said.

He hopes the Interior Ministry's cooperation will have a domino effect on other state agencies, he said.

"This means that in a similar situation, similar decisions will be made," he said.

After months of butting heads, reform planners have found a simple way to convince stubborn bureaucrats to relinquish some of their powers, Sharov said. Bureaucrats were invited to analyze the powers of other ministries and state bodies rather than the ones they are working for. After doing so, Sharov said, the bureaucrats suddenly became very reasonable and practical.

"I think a certain psychological change has began to occur among those who analyze the functions of other ministries. They have become objective. There is no conflict of interest," Sharov said.

However, changing the deeply ingrained mindsets of bureaucrats is not the goal of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry. Its plan is to create a system that will breed new staff ready to work in the new conditions.

Apart from the law on civil service, the new legal framework for the reformed bureaucracy will include a law on what information is in the public domain. Tied to that will be a law on which information is classified.

The amount of information that will not go into the public domain will be limited mostly to drafts of decisions and pending appointments, Sharov said.

The rest of the myriad of documents will be available on the Internet or by written request, opening up a virtual treasure trove of information about government activities.

"When this law becomes operative the volume of accessible information will skyrocket," Sharov said.

The law on the openness of information will outline which information is free and which can be charged for, he said, stressing that money would probably only be asked for analytical work performed on request or to cover photocopying costs.

Sharov said the necessary bill is likely to be submitted to the State Duma sometime next year.

Among other changes that administrative reform will bring, new rules are being crafted to prevent corruption. One of them aims to minimize the situations in which anything is left at the discretion of a single official, Sharov said. Another foresees a system in which the public will be able to pay a fee to get documents processed faster.

"When these rules are developed, no one will have to beg for anything to get done," Sharov said. "The rules will be clear for both the civil servant and the client."

To avoid new functions from being needlessly added to any state agency, another system is being developed in which the agency seeking addition powers would have to show without a doubt that it needs them.

As for civil servants themselves, Sharov has little hope those who currently work in the system will abruptly change their ways. So the plan is that those who do not like the changes will eventually quit, retire or be retrained.

"If you take out the corrupting factors, corrupt people are not going to stay on the job, they will leave," Sharov said. "All we have to do is just kick-start this process."