A recurring theme – Ukrainian civil service

July 5, 2015

Over the past few weeks, your author has been asked to speak to journalists, NGOs/civil society, and diplomats regarding issues in Odessa and more generally across Ukraine.

A recurring theme in each and every tête-à-tête never fails to arise.  It will undoubtedly arise again on Monday when speaking with more diplomats and also next week when speaking with those from the Oblast Administration.  That issue is the generally dysfunctional, bloated, corrupted, and politically controlled Ukrainian civil service.

Amongst the NGOs/civil society in particular, there seems to be a general lack of awareness of how a civil service should function.  It is, when all is said and done, the nervous system of the nation.  It is what makes things happen – or not.

Through civil service departments, agencies and public sector bodies, the civil service acts as the delivery service of current policy.  Presidents, Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and governments will come and go – but the civil service, a-political and independent of government, remains a consistent functionary.

The civil service is responsible for delivering governmental projects, be they large or small, complex or simple (hopefully) on time and on budget.

Despite the numerous ministries in which the civil service perform, perhaps the simplest way to segregate them is those tasked with issues at home, and those tasked with issues abroad.

The civil servants closer to Ministers are there to give advice and have, theoretically (and often do) influence on policy.  Whether that advice is based upon a broad or narrow view, or somewhat questionable evidence occasionally, is something that perhaps should be pondered a little more than it is.

However, together with political independence whilst delivering government policy of the day, one, if not the major benefit of a civil service is its a-political longevity and thus internal stability – and it is here that Ukraine has major issues to resolve.

As such, existing Ukrainian reform by way of reducing civil service staffing numbers and ejecting the most corrupt is at best, still only partial reform.  Political interference and excessive unwarranted meddling continues unabated.

As an example, let us take the Odessa Customs Chief role.  Over the past 18 months, how many Customs Chiefs has Odessa had?

1?  2? 5? 7?

It will soon, over a period of 18 months, reach double figures.  The current incumbent having been seemingly inserted only a week ago, to the angst of the current Governor who was attempting to bring in a candidate based upon meritocracy rather than the continually changing vested interests of the political/business elite.

Staying with this example, and it is perhaps somewhat extreme even for Ukrainian standards regarding political interference in State institutions, there are repercussions beyond any new Odessa Customs Chief knowing that they only have a few months in post before inevitably getting the sack.

How does any Odessa Customs Chief achieve anything approaching institutional change when all employees expect them to last no longer than a few months?

How can any employee have any faith in the management and leadership of the Odessa customs hierarchy when the turnover of top leadership occurs every few months?

Is there any incentive to move beyond the middle ranks, when to do so will ultimately result in your dismissal when you get near the top of the greasy pole?

What of the external interlocutors that have to deal with Odessa Customs?  By way of example, is there any point in senior EUBAM diplomats and functionaries getting to know, and forming relationships with, top tier Odessa customs management that they know will not survive in post for more than a few months?

Can sustained progress be made when by the time new incumbents are up to speed with multi-agency interaction that has previously occurred, they are already on their way out?

The frequently unnecessary but politically expedient turnover of (senior) civil servants in Ukraine simply undermines the a-political nature that should underwrite a civil service.  It thus removes any notion of stability from the functionary system by denying longevity, whilst also placing a ceiling upon ambitions of the capable for fear of putting their head above the parapet in the top echelons of the service and the inevitable sacking that follows.  By extension that often means (good, bad or indifferent) policy in ineffectively implemented – which can have counterproductive political outcomes for those who would sack and promote “their people” within what should be an independent policy delivery system (and which when asked should provide a-political policy advice).

Such is the extent of political meddling within the civil service, who then is accountable and for what?  There is the policy issue of administration, and also the issue of the administration of policy.

Confusion and unaccountability abound when responsibility for the administration of the policy of administration, conflict or overlaps with the policy for the administration of policy – particularly when subject to continuous politically expedient hirings and firings at the very top of the civil service. – Clear?  Naturally (and deliberately) not, which is partly why policy is rarely effectively implemented in Ukraine.

Much has been written about rule of law reform, fiscal and economic reform, judicial reform et al.  Little has be written about the required reform for an entire civil service that insulates it from political expediency and unnecessary internal meddling, and provides an a-political functionary delivery (and advisory) service for the policy of the day by a stable and reliable civil service.

Which Ukrainian Minister has been charged with a national reform of the Ukrainian civil service?  Which Ukrainian MP heads a Rada Committee charged with national reforms to the Ukrainian civil service?

Who do the politicians believe will effectively implement their policies if not the Ukrainian civil service?

How do the politicians expect effective policy to be implemented when they are continually applying a politically expedient/vested interest epidural to the nation’s nervous system, rather than dealing with the existing nerve damage to the benefit of the civil service and the nation?


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