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The Russia Journal
December 7-13, 2001
Bureaucracy faces the knife – and many questions
Most agree reform is needed, but little else is certain


Russia’s bureaucracy is preparing to go under the knife, that’s for sure. But the big question now is whether the instrument be a fine surgical scalpel to make it all more efficient or a crude hatchet that will just hack it into ineffectiveness.

President Vladimir Putin has promised reform that would trim the number of bureaucrats – a move many say is urgently needed. But voices are warning against a populist approach that would cause such disruption and crisis that none of the nation’s urgent tasks would have a chance to get done.

"The bureaucracy is actually very valuable," said historian and political analyst Denis Dragunsky. "The fight needs to be directed against corruption and ineffective state management."

Dragunsky is drafting his own civil service reform proposal for the 2015 Club – which was created by a group of Russian top managers and entrepreneurs to carry out analysis and make recommendations for Russia’s future development. Dragunsky said that, so far, there’s no clear consensus even on how many bureaucrats are actually needed.

One mln bureaucrats?

"Some sources say there are 1,000 top-level bureaucrats making decisions," he said. "Others put the figure at 1 million. It depends on the approach, on how they define bureaucrats and who is put in that category.

"You could define it as just the officials who make decisions, or you could extend it to cover everyone sitting at a computer," he added. "So, when people say we’ve got too many bureaucrats, that’s crazy. We don’t even know exactly how many bureaucrats we need."

But political analyst Leonid Ionin, dean of the Applied Political Science faculty at the Higher School of Economics, said the number of bureaucrats could reflect the quality – or lack thereof – of the modern Russian bureaucracy. Ionin pointed out that many studies say there are more bureaucrats in Russia now than there were in the entire Soviet Union. He said this suggests Russian bureaucrats are less effective than Soviet bureaucrats were.

"There’s no doubt that the number of bureaucrats has to be cut," Ionin said. "There are a number of different target figures that could be considered, but the first objective should be to at least bring it down to the number of bureaucrats there were in the Soviet Union."

But not everyone thinks the numbers are so important. Vladimir Rimsky, for example, a leading analyst at the Indem Foundation, said he didn’t think the number of bureaucrats was a decisive factor. Rimsky has been working for several years on a joint Russian-U.S. project to study bureaucracy in Russia, and he bases his assessment on the results of the ongoing monitoring his foundation is doing of bureaucracy and corruption in the country.

Rimsky said the figure of several million bureaucrats in Russia certainly does make an impression, but that it doesn’t actually mean anything. What matters is how well the system functions. In this respect, one of the most important factors to examine is the decision-making process.

"Studies show that bureaucrats have inherited a certain style from the Soviet era," Rimsky said. "This expresses itself in a preference for collective decision-making, but at the same time, it means that no one ever knows just who is responsible for this or that decision. This is not a chance phenomenon, it is a system."

Analysts agree that bureaucracy and corruption are not one and the same. Bureaucrats are people who have a certain profession and are necessary if the state is to function, while corruption is an illness within the system that eats away at the state. Some analysts even stress the distinction between corruption and bribery.

"Corruption and bribery aren’t the same thing," Dragunsky said. "The Latin root of the word corruption implies a process of degradation and corrosion. It’s a flawed system of decision-making and doesn’t necessarily involve bribery at all. If the state is being run by bathhouse keepers, sports trainers, members of a ‘close entourage,’ then that is corruption."

Dragunsky said the recent flurry of media speculation about the internal struggles between Putin’s "close entourage" and the remains of Boris Yeltsin’s team, traditionally known as the Family, shows that there is still a preference for running the state through people known to be loyal rather than through clearly defined procedures.

"A country where people take seriously discussions about fights between the ‘Petersburg team’ and the ‘Family’ is a country in urgent need of reform of its civil service," Dragunsky said.

Putin promised just such reform more than 18 months ago, but civil service reform is constantly postponed. One high-placed source in the government said that work is under way, but that no specific deadline has been set. Ionin, however, said he knows of several draft proposals that simply haven’t come up for discussion yet, but he said the general outline of reform is emerging.

Administrative reform is about changing the organizational structure of state management and involves relations between the federal and regional authorities, while civil service reform is specifically about improving the way the state apparatus works.

"It’s important that administrative reform and civil service reform are coordinated," Ionin said. "As part of civil service reform, bureaucrats will see their status raised and their wages increased, and they will receive certain benefits and privileges."

Pride in one’s work

"Their status is quite high at the moment," Ionin said. "But this is thanks to their ability to bend the law and convert their job and influence into money. But instead of this, bureaucrats have to have a chance to feel pride in their work and status and try to work in the state’s interests in the full sense of the words."

Ionin said that the wage issue is important for civil servants because today’s low salaries are in large part what incites many bureaucrats to look for alternative sources of income.

"Just look at [Railways Minister Nikolai] Aksyonenko. How can you have a minister with a monthly wage of 5,000 rubles ($170)?", Ionin said.

The analysts did warn, however, that just raising wages isn’t a cure-all, and that it has to go hand in hand with efforts to raise the public status of civil servants and increase their responsibility and accountability.

"All round the world, civil servants earn less than businesspeople, but this is compensated by their status, the fact they have job protection and a stable future," Ionin said. "We have to make civil service look like a more prestigious career choice."

"I don’t believe in material incentives alone," Dragunsky said. "You can have bribes today that are bigger than any money the state can pay in wages. What we need is competition. It has to be transparent to the public how civil servants are selected. The bureaucracy should be seen as a real career choice and should attract people who are genuinely interested in serving the state’s interests in the best sense of what this means. When they join the civil service, people should know that with the right education, experience and results, after a while, they could become, say, department heads."

Political will

But the paradox in the situation is that reforms are to be implemented by the very same state apparatus they are targeting. And the apparatus, of course, has no interest in changing the status quo. Many analysts say it is this conflict of interests that is delaying reform. But Dragunsky said the time is nonetheless good for pushing through reform, as the bureaucracy is nowhere near as united and powerful as it once was and potentially could be again.

"The bureaucratic class has been broken," Dragunsky said. "It is fragmented, everyone is busy with their own affairs. This is the right moment for reform, the question is how to manage the process. There must be a show of political will."

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