The peatbog fires that cloaked Moscow in a choking gray haze for much of the summer of2002 could have been put out more quickly had it not been for one obstacle:bureaucracy. When the issue of the fires was raised at a Cabinet meeting thatsummer, it quickly became clear that there was no single state agency dedicatedto fighting them. Fires in Moscow region forests were the responsibility of theNatural Resources Ministry. When they moved onto agricultural land, they becamean issue for the Agriculture Ministry. The Emergency Situations Ministry,meanwhile, was standing by until they neared towns and cities.
“Therewas immediately the question: Who is responsible? The answer was nobody!”recalled Andrei Sharov, head of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry’sstate service department.
Asbureaucrats struggled, they learned that there was a little-known federal agencycalled the State Turf Inspectorate that in theory should be overseeing peat bogblazes, Sharov said. But its powers were so unclear that its staff could not doanything to help combat the fires.
As such,it proved impossible to organize an operation to fight the fires — and theycontinued to pump smoke into Moscow’s air until winter finally set in.
Thetop-to-bottom overhaul of the federal government should prevent such abureaucratic deadlock from happening again, said Sharov, who with his staffdrafted the reform. The aim of the revamp, which kicked off in March, is to cutred tape and improve efficiency by trimming staff, raising salaries and clearlyspelling out responsibilities.
TheState Turf Inspectorate has already been disbanded, and the Emergency SituationsMinistry has been given sole responsibility for fighting fires, no matter wherethey break out.
Whilethere have been no peat bog fires in the past 1 1/2 months to test theeffectiveness of the new government structure, perhaps the most noticeablechange it has brought so far is that for the first time in contemporary Russianhistory the Cabinet members actually fit around one table and the averagemeeting lasts from 60 minutes to 90 minutes, compared to four hours in theprevious government.
Criticsof the reform say there may not be many more changes. They point out, amongother things, that despite plans to lay off civil servants, the reform hasalready boosted the total number of state bodies from 60 to 76.
Sharovacknowledged that obstacles remain, but expressed hope that they would belargely overcome by the time the new system is supposed to be up and running in2006. By then, the overhaul should include regional and municipaladministrations.
Federalbureaucrats in Moscow are already being laid off, with the goal to cut theirranks from 25,000 to some 18,000, Sharov said. Another 300,000 people will besent into the private sector from dozens of state-funded laboratories, testingcenters and other organizations that are at the government’s disposal. Once cutoff from federal funding, those people would be able to bid for governmentcontracts for anything from alcohol quality control and checking cars fortechnical compliance to analyzing industrial emissions.
“Therewill be orders from state officials for such expertise, and the state will justbe buying their services on the market,” Sharov said in a recent interviewin his modest office overlooking the statue of Mayakovsky on TriumfalnayaPloshchad.
Askedwhether that might breed corruption, he replied, “No, because if anyonedecided to cheat, their competitors would be more than happy to tip off theauthorities.” As for retaining qualified staff, the answer lies in raisingsalaries and changing spending priorities, Sharov said.
“Itis, after all, unclear why our traffic policemen drive in police Mercedes whiletheir salaries are $ 200 a month, or why all of us have Pentium-4 computers whenin most cases an electronic typewriter will do,” he said.
Inaddition, the government spends billions of rubles a year maintaining anindependent system of healthcare for its staff that includes hospitals, clinicsand other facilities. “Why not just get rid of it all and buy medicalinsurance for everyone?” Sharov said.
It alsowould be cheaper to provide cheap mortgages for civil servants instead ofbuilding new housing for them, he said.
Sharovsaid that even though the number of state bodies has grown to 76, in reality theefficiency of the government will improve.
“Ifwe were to simply break the functions into three types — strategy, assetmanagement and control — we would have ended up with something like 177 statebodies. But this is not the case,” he said.
While onthe federal level the plan on how to build a leaner governing machine is more orless clear, regional authorities could deliver some surprises by taking up someof the thousands of functions that the federal government is discarding — be itin licensing, regulation or something else, according to Sharov.
Shouldthis problem arise in the regions, there are always prosecutors to step in andstraighten things out, Sharov said. Putin’s administration went through asimilar situation from 2000 to 2004, when it launched a campaign to ensure thatregional laws conform with federal ones, and the lessons it learned then couldbe used in pushing through administrative reform, Sharov said.