Proposed decentralization raises concern over the quality of human resources available to run the regions
After the widely announced extension of powers for local governments, mayors, councils, heads of state administrations and other regional officials, that follows the administrative reform, they will have to work harder and make more responsible decisions than they do now. Will the people working today in executive committees and regional administrations be up to this task?
Given the current situation anywhere beyond the central government in Ukraine, this seems highly unlikely. While top central authorities that constantly find themselves in the spotlight of the media and foreign politicians and experts are doing some personnel purges, and even show some progress, the regions see stagnation in that. Newsworthy appointments and lustration of civil servants in the regions are sporadic. Most often, local officials who have long been embedded into the corrupt state machine and who, during the years of service, developed an amazing ability to survive under any government, remain in office.
The work of the Cabinet of Ministers and the staff of the General Prosecutor’s Office is closely scrutinized by the journalists. The media provide regular updates on the raids by Deputy Prosecutor General Davit Sakvarelidze on corrupt prosecutors, as well as on the work of the new police force created under the management of First Deputy Minister of Interior Eka Zguladze. Georgian and Lithuanian top officials have noticeably animated Ukraine’s political scene, and news stories featuring them encourage us to believe that reforms in Ukraine are underway. But what do we know about the work of local authorities in the regions, those responsible for implementing the decrees and orders issued by the ministers in Kyiv?
The main non-Kyiv newsmaker is Mikheil Saakashvili, the newly-appointed Head of Odesa Oblast State Administration. In about two months since his appointment in late May, he has managed to create so many newsworthy events that other heads of regions would hardly do in a year. In late July, Maria Gaidar, the daughter of Yegor Gaidar, the father of Russian privatization, joined his team, instantly becoming the most talked-about Ukrainian Deputy Governor ever.
Beyond Odesa Oblast, however, opposite trends are more common. Of particular concern is South-Eastern Ukraine.
In April, Yehor Firsov, a Donetsk-born Bloc of Petro Poroshenko MP, wrote in his blog that the President's team appoints former members of the Party of Regions as heads of county administrations there, instead of looking for new young staff.
"The Presidential Administration relies on the "team of professionals" nurtured by Liovochkin and Kliuyev. For what I know, the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko didn't even try to consult any of my colleagues in the Parliament on personnel issues. For example, UDAR group within the BPP faction, of which I am a member, is hardly represented in the presidential power structure. Given the fact that Deputy Chief of Staff Vitaliy Kovalchuk comes from our party, he should know better than anyone else the talent pool of our regional party structures.
The conclusion is unnerving: one of the major issues of public administration – staffing – remains unresolved. The appointment of officials was and remains obscure. The major condition for getting a job at an oblast or county state administration was and remains loyalty. The system offers no social mobility, and people who have not been in government will never get into it," Firsov wrote.
To prove his words, he quoted a list of county state administration heads in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast: 17 out of 22 counties are headed by former Party of Regions people.
This gives us a puzzling general picture. While President Poroshenko appointed an experienced and media-friendly reformer to Odesa Oblast, in Dnipropetrovsk he preserved the old staff that served as the backbone of the corrupt regime for years. Such personnel policy can hardly signal any intent of serious reforms in the region.
The heads of oblast administrations raise many concerns too. Anyone who watches the public flogging of corrupt officials or personal supervision of the demolishing of an illegal fence on the city beach by Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, starts wondering why he is the only one out of the 25 heads of oblast administrations to act this way? What prevents others from demolishing illegal constructions or thrashing corrupt officials? What stopped Zhytomyr Governor Serhiy Mashkovsky from going to illegal amber extraction fields and admonishing the corrupt local police and prosecutors?
All this points at an obvious conclusion: if the heads of oblast and county administrations are reluctant to work the way Saakashvili does, they should be dismissed. After all, we already have a model regional leader who finds ways when there is will. But Ukraine cannot have Georgians as heads of all of its regions. We need local talents to entrust the regions, since it is regional leaders who will in the future have more power than they have today. It is also worth remembering that weak and indecisive leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast state administrations contributed to the ignominious surrender of the places to the Russia-backed militants. In Dnepropetrovsk, to the contrary, an influential leader quickly had separatists over a barrel.
Clearly, to achieve progress in reforms, we need people from outside of the system to take the posts of oblast governors. The regions need people who are not part of the chain of corruption, but have administrative experience. Saakashvili may be well-tailored for this position, but Ukraine abounds in proper professionals as well.
The best foundry of future management talents is the volunteer community. Volunteers are good organizers and enthusiasts, as well as dedicated patriots, which, given the resilience of the corrupt state machine, is probably the most important criterion. It looks like the higher-ups have realized that such path is inevitable. As a result, volunteer Heorhy Tuka was appointed Head of the Luhansk Oblast State Administration. Ideally, this appointment should be followed by more of the kind.
It is the volunteer community that established over the last year its own ministry of defense, which often works more efficiently than the Ministry headed by Stepan Poltorak. People who, without asking permission and without much ado, took over the functions of the state and performed them without asking for awards are definitely more worthy of holding a public office than the thievish turncoat officials.
Another important talent pool are businesspeople. The only thing is that in order for the former and the latter not to get mired in the corruption swamp, the new officials need to earn an adequate salary. With the current award offered to civil servants, only people who can rely on their savings can take the job.
Without an HR revolution in the regions, there will be no one available to bring to life ambitious and urgent initiatives of the President and the Prime Minister. Old functionaries will inevitably fail any revolutionary endeavors and innovative approaches. We have no room for such mistake.
 Serhiy Liovochkin served as Chief of Staff under Yanukovych from February 25, 2010 to November 30, 2013, filing resignation letter over disagreement with actions against Maidan protesters. Andriy Kliuyev served in various top positions in the Yanukovych government, including as Vice Premier and First Vice Premier, head of the National Security and Defense Council and Chief of Staff for Yanukovych from January 24 through February 25, 2014. He fled Ukraine in early June 2015, after the Prosecutor General’s Office put him on the wanted list for suspicion of abuse of public power and fraud.