Cementing the Grand Experiment: Georgian Civil Service Reform

01 Mar 2016

 Working session in the Innovation Lab of the Public Service Development Bureau of the Ministry of Justice of Georgia. Photo: PSDA

In my home country of the United States, a functional and transparent civil service is something that many take for granted. Many Americans have no idea that, for a great number of countries around the world, efficient and corruption-free civil service is still a far-off goal- something that governments and societies push towards in a daily struggle.  I realized this, perhaps for the first time, at a conference on Civil Service Reform on January 29, 2016 in Tbilisi, Georgia. Looking around at the faces of numerous delegations from around the globe, I was struck by the potency of this issue and its application to the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Georgia.

Georgia’s journey with civil service reform started with a bang in 2003, with the Rose Revolution and the subsequent sweep to power of a reform-minded government that took dramatic measures to tackle the endemic corruption that had taken root in the country- replacing the entire police force, customs office and tax service and drastically reducing the number of government agencies, among other changes. Those that remained in the civil service were thrown into a whirlwind of innovation and experimentation, as the government sought to shake the sector from the foundations and redefine best practices and working culture.  

According to UNDP Democratic Governance Team Leader in Georgia, Gigi Bregadze, this was a time when a series of “brave decisions” were taken for the good of the country, revolutionizing the civil service with “new public management” methodologies that introduced private business practices into the country’s public sector for the first time. At this time, UNDP was also pitching into the countrywide effort to support the reforms- helping to professionalize the Georgian civil service with living wages and facilitating extensive capacity building initiatives through its Governance Reform Fund.

Today, one need only look at the numbers to see the effects of this grand experiment in reform.  In 2006, at the start of the reforms, Georgia was ranked 99th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Nine years later, in TI’s 2015 report, Georgia received a ranking of 48 – the highest ranking in Eastern Europe and Central Asia combined. Notably, Georgia also scored higher than a number of EU member states: Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Romania.

Minimizing corruption was only the first step in the reforms, however. In 2014, Georgian government together with the Civil Service Bureau (CSB) took another major step in professionalizing its civil service by introducing important legislation such as the Civil Service Reform Concept Note culminating in the new Law of Georgia on Civil Service, and the Public Administration Reform Roadmap 2015-2020.

The CSB Deputy Director, Maia Dvalishvili, remarked that the adoption of the new Civil Service Law in October 2015 was the “greatest achievement” of Georgian civil service reform to date, significantly improving on the old 1997 law with over 100 new amendments.

According to Dvalishvili, the new law establishes “the basic principles to build an absolutely modern, professionalized, and European-style civil service that will be free from favoritism, nepotism and unethical behavior.” Among other measures, this new legislation stipulates the implementation of new recruitment, classification and remuneration systems. Shifting from the contract-based system from the early period of reform, it professionalizes civil service employees with lifetime-based recruitment.  This ensures that civil servants will not be subject to political influence or pressure and will allow them to have a stable career regardless of whichever party or politician happens to be in power at a given time.  Such continuity in the civil service provides a particularly significant public benefit in countries that otherwise face costly turnover at technical levels with every change in government.

UNDP, through the Governance Reform Fund, has worked hand-in-hand with the government in spearheading these reforms, providing a wide variety of targeted and on-demand consultancy services that aim at capacity development in ministries and other government agencies throughout the country. Recently, UNDP has worked actively with the CSB to strengthen whistleblower protection mechanisms that will contribute to increased transparency in the civil service sector.

“The Government strategy for this new legislation is for the civil service sector to move away from experimentation of the mid-2000s, towards standardization and professionalization,” Bregadze explains.  

Essentially, the government is taking the gains and lessons learned from the ‘grand experiment’ of early civil service reform and cementing them both in law and practice.  This transformation of black-letter law into implemented reality poses a distinct challenge, however, as Georgia moves forward.  It entails no less than a change in Georgian political culture across the country to meet the standards of new legislation and practices in a regulated way.  

Dvalishvili says that she is optimistic about the country’s potential to embrace the reforms, however.  In addition to developing the necessary systems and infrastructure to implement the law, she says that the CSB is also “working in all directions” to achieve the reform’s impact on working culture. Currently, the CSB is undertaking extensive professional development training for staff, including a new public administration training curriculum for incoming civil servants and trainings and awareness-raising campaign for those already serving.  UNDP’s Bregadze commented on the need to strengthen these measures, underscoring the importance of effective change management and communication with civil service staff in order to effect the envisioned change.

It is important to note that Georgia is not alone in facing these challenges. On January 29th, the Civil Service Bureau held a conference on civil service reform, inviting representatives from other post-Soviet states including Estonia, Latvia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to speak about their own countries’ progress in effecting reform in this area.  Estonia and Latvia have especially impressive track records in this regard, with both countries overcoming their own Soviet legacies to develop civil service practices that have earned international renown for their efficiency and transparency.  Despite their many successes, however, it would be wrong to assume that these model countries have reached the pinnacle of civil service optimization. At the conference, Ms. Airi Alakivi, representative from Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, underscored the long-term and iterated nature of any effective civil service reform, remarking that “Reform is not a short journey- and actually it never ends.” On the other hand, Ms. Liva Liepina of the State Chancellery of the Republic of Latvia noted how comforting it was that there exists a community of nations, facing similar challenges and searching for joint solutions. “It is inspiring,” she said, “to know that we are all in this together.”

It is clear that Georgia has set a difficult task for itself, if a worthy one. This year will be critical, as all stakeholders are acting furiously to get the components of the primary and secondary legislation into place before the Civil Service Law officially comes into force on January 1, 2017. Now more than ever, Georgia must rely on her partners at UNDP and elsewhere to cement the grand experiment and bring this vision into reality.


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