Margus Sarapuu, head of ‘Zero Bureaucracy’ task force, government of Estonia: Exclusive Interview
As the Estonian government’s director of strategy, Margus Sarapuu made it his mission to improve coordination and collaboration. He tells Winnie Agbonlahor how the government can achieve true unity – and why getting there is a major challenge
Unity. Teamwork. Efficiency. Which government doesn’t strive for these goals? Experts tell us time and time again that traditional ministerial structures are no longer suitable to deliver public services effectively. The challenges today’s governments face are too complex to fall into just one portfolio. Civil servants must work across departmental boundaries.
We heard those same messages again last year, following an in-depth review of Estonia’s government by the OECD: the administration should “pursue a common strategy across government” and embrace the “concept of One Government”, it said.
Given Estonia’s relatively small size, this may seem surprising. In a civil service comprising around 20,000 officials, shouldn’t it be easier for people to collaborate informally? “In an ideal world, yes,” says Margus Sarapuu, who was the government’s director of strategy during the production and early implementation of the report. “In real life,” he adds, “it’s more complicated.”
Estonia, a country of 1.3 million inhabitants well known for its advanced digital government services, is governed by a three-party coalition. This, Sarapuu explains, “has significant influence on how well ministries cooperate.” With each party controlling a set of departments, there’s plenty of potential for friction between them – and “it’s difficult for ministries to overcome those political differences.”
In many countries, civil servants regularly move between departments – easing cross-boundary collaboration. But this, Sarapuu says, is simply “not in our DNA – if somebody moves to another department, they usually go permanently.” When he was in charge of the Ministry of Justice from 2007 to 2014, Sarapuu often asked civil servants if they would like to experience another ministry for a while. But, he recalls, “they would say: ‘No, I like my job, I don’t want to go’.”
In part, this reluctance to move across government is a result of pay variables across the civil service. “We don’t have a centralised remuneration system in Estonia,” Sarapuu explains, so many moves entail a pay cut unless lower-paying “receiving departments” can find the extra money – something that only happens “if they really want that person.” These barriers to mobility, he adds, could only be removed by making the government salary system “more coherent.”
The introduction of whole-of-government human resource management standards was among the OECD’s recommendations. Its report called on the government to “implement common standards for hiring, remuneration, performance evaluation, promotion, training, rewards and recognition, firing and other aspects of strategic human resources management as a means to facilitate inter-ministry mobility and improve equal treatment of all civil servants regardless of where they work in the system.”
Will this happen? Not soon, Sarapuu replies. Streamlining HR aspects of the civil service would mean taking away managerial flexibilities from department heads. “The current logic is that we should trust [departmental] managers because they have an interest in making the best choices to manage their departments well.” Ensuring department heads have significant freedoms also helps ensure a high quality of candidates when top jobs become available, Sarapuu points out. “Usually good managers want to have more freedom so if you say that you have to manage a department but your choices are limited, they will end up less motivated. So it is a difficult question: it’s not as easy as saying ‘increase mobility by decreasing managerial freedom’.”
One measure the government took to increase unity across departments was to set out a number of overall government priorities. However, Sarapuu says, there is currently no mechanism in place to reward civil servants for acting in line with those objectives.
Indeed, performance management systems can work directly against cross-cutting policies. “As it stands, ministers can pay performance bonuses to secretary generals, who, in turn, can pay them to deputy secretary generals.” But if the government objectives in any way go “against the interest of their ministry, the minister is free to pay the secretary general for working against government objectives. The system is decentralised, which means you don’t have any control centrally of whether these officials will be paid for achieving governmental objectives. It’s a kind of dilemma.”
The government is willing to tackle the problems arising from this level of managerial freedom, says Sarapuu: provisions for an improved performance payment system are currently being debated.
Another recommendation by the OECD was to minimise regulatory burdens and foster the growth of SMEs. As a result the government set up its special ‘Zero Bureaucracy’ task force, which Sarapuu has been leading since April this year. The task force works to cut red tape, in both the business world and the public sector.
Estonia’s institutions and legislature have existed in their current form since soon after the Baltic nation gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1981. Do some of the regulations the state now wants to eliminate hail from the previous Soviet regime? No, says Sarapuu. The Soviet legacy “has been mostly replaced by us. Those [Soviet] institutions were not suitable for a new kind of democratic governance [model].”
“When the Soviet Union was dissolved and we started building our own independent country, this new public management movement of having small functional agencies was really popular. So if we had some problems, we established a small agency for it, which means our governance structure became quite fragmented.”
So, Sarapuu explains, “we are not dealing with problems we have from Soviet times but actually problems from the 1990s. And then, we didn’t have a strong centre of government. So from that time, we’ve had strong ministries who find it hard to cooperate.” During the EU accession process, he adds, there was another period when Estonia “established new agencies and regulators” to meet the union’s requirements. The system as a whole, Sarapuu adds, lacks coordination.
Sarapuu’s bureaucracy task force, which sits within the Ministry of Economics and Communications, has already consulted public sector bodies and businesses on which rules and regulations should be cut, receiving hundreds of responses. Sarapuu and his team have also drafted a number of action plans, but are missing one crucial ingredient: hard numbers.
How much do particular regulations cost businesses? How much could the economy save if certain elements of red tape were eliminated? “I’m working right now on how to establish these kinds of metrics,” Sarapuu says. “Some calculations have been made at the ministry, but they were based on data that wasn’t very good.” The unit is also working closely with digital teams across government – for, Sarapuu says: “digitising is one of the main options for reducing [regulatory] burdens.”
Estonia’s governance system is fragmented, but barriers are being slowly broken down. And if the nation’s advances in e-government are anything to go by, nobody should underestimate the Baltic nation’s ability to – little by little – achieve unity, teamwork and efficiency.
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