Are Odessa Officials Ready for Decentralization?

Are Odessa Officials Ready for Decentralization?

Nikolai Holmov is The Odessa Review's political columnist. He is a writer, and consultant specializing in Ukrainian politics, civil society, local governance and security affairs. He is the founder of the widely read Odessatalk blog.

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THE ODESSA REVIEW NEW ISSUE

issue_september16

Ukraine prepares to devolve power to regions but questions remain over capabilities of local authorities

When national and local governments fail to meet society’s needs, it often falls upon civil society to step in. Some gaps are obvious and need urgent attention. While structural weaknesses can often be less obvious, they are no less important. In this respect, Odessa is no different from any other city. As 2016 unfolds, the challenges of decentralization look set to test the strengths of both local government and civil society in the Ukrainian Black Sea port city.

From the very beginning, decentralization of centrally held powers to Ukraine’s regions has been a core policy of President Poroshenko. Ukraine has already come too far, and at too great a cost in blood and treasure, to remain captive to its centralized legacy of post-Soviet administrative bureaucracy. The basic expectation of Ukraine’s population is that governance will be brought down to the local level as much as is practicable or possible. Achieving this would bolster the kind of grassroots democracy long denied to Ukrainians. It would also offer much for Odessa itself. Odessa has always been an outlier city, giving rise to the old adage: “Ukraine is Ukraine, but Odessa is Odessa.” This may be true, but Odessa is also a particularly mercantile city -its business is business, as the saying goes. Decentralization would bring clear and obvious mercantile advantages.

The constitutional amendments required for decentralization will likely become a reality at some point during 2016. The question will then be whether Ukraine’s local authorities are able to manage these new responsibilities successfully. Local officials will need to be more receptive, tolerant and inclusive in their decision-making, while there are also significant practical questions for the Odessa civil service to answer.

Odessa has always been an outlier city, giving rise to the old adage: “Ukraine is Ukraine, but Odessa is Odessa.

Historically, there have been definite benefits to having a feckless and inefficient Ukrainian civil service. In practice,  this has often resulted in the failure to implement ineffective or counterproductive policies. Decentralization means this is no longer an option. Neither the local political elites nor the local constituency of Odessa will benefit from ineffective policy implementation once new responsibilities and accountability pass to the regions. Blaming Kyiv will become far more problematic.

How well positioned is Odessa to meet these challenges? In the final analysis, the local civil service will be the nervous system of the city and the Oblast. Through the local civil service departments, agencies and public sector bodies, it will act as the delivery service of current policy. Like all civil services everywhere, it will need to execute projects large and small, complex and simple, on budget and on time. There is also the expectation that the local civil service must deal fairly and swiftly in its daily interactions with constituents.

As Ukraine’s decentralization process gains momentum, there will be an on-going role for civil society in Odessa to monitor and influence not only policy creation but also implementation. The ultimate objective is a better all-round administration. The major benefits of a competent local civil service are internal stability and the institutional longevity that comes from removing undue political considerations from the work of the civil service. Like career civil servants all over the world, these newly empowered officials will necessarily have to take a longer policy view of Odessa’s interests than the political class, which shuffles around after every election.

The questions facing Odessa are no different from those of any other Ukrainian region. Local authorities must prove themselves competent and accountable to the local political class and residents alike. Are these expectations realistic? What can we expect from an Odessa civil servant who is earning a pittance? At present, it is important to recognize that many within the Ukrainian civil service are used to using post-Soviet bureaucracy not only as a method of enhancing their pay through soliciting illicit additional fees, but also using the new post-Soviet bureaucracy as an excuse not to offer proper service to local constituents. How can we wipe away the post-Soviet institutional memory of this corrupted civil service model and create solid foundations worthy of a modern public administration institution able to meet the requirements of Odessa?

Preparatory steps are required in Odessa in order to create well-trained and efficient structures capable of adequately supporting politicians with newly enhanced power and budgets, whilst also meeting the much higher expectations of a post-revolutionary society. Soviet communication structures between the civil service and the local community will need to be modernized and brought into a 21st century environment.

It is not yet clear how Ukraine intends to meet these challenges. Do the central authorities hope that civil society in cities like Odessa will yet again fill the gap that the traditional governance structures have yet to address? If it is to fall upon civil society once more, where can the necessary funding be found? Who will decide – and who will decide who will decide? Will NGOs such as the “Regional Development Office” from Odessa, which was specifically created to address these civil service/public administrative issues, actually gain any serious funding? Or will Odessa’s small army of Western educated volunteers be forced to abandon attempts to reform the local civil service and instead return to the careers they left behind more than a year ago? Patriotism goes a long way, but volunteering to work for as long as one’s own personal savings hold out has its natural limits – regardless of the righteousness of one’s cause.

The new Civil Service Law in Ukraine enters into force in May 2016, while constitutional amendments facilitating the decentralization of power to the regions will also come into force sometime this year.

The allotted preparatory time is short. If there is to be a local civil service in Odessa that delivers efficiently, with integrity, and with a thorough understanding of its critical role in the building of a modern region, work needs to begin now. How prepared is Odessa to meet the challenge?

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