Institutional Policy Wonks

12 July 2011, 16:32

Recently, the tragicomic situation with the public council attached to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry and especially Oleksandr Korman, pastor of the Embassy of God Church who has been elected its chairman, has been widely publicized. Also represented on the council are such interesting organizations as the Lady Mary Institute of Noble Maidens and Happy Woman. 

On November 3, 2010, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine issued resolution No. 996 “On Securing Participation of the Public in Shaping and Implementing Government Policies.” This effort was supposed to be a leap forward in involving the masses in policy making. The previous presidents, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko, even issued decrees to set up national public councils. These would have had to take care of all issues at once and, of course, from a strategic vantage point. At the same time, no one was particularly concerned with the local and regional counterparts. Institutions have to be build from the foundation, in the bottom-up fashion, while the worldview begins to take shape from the core strategic issues and gradually extends to the small things of everyday life. But this philosophical distinction has always been foreign to our politicians.

Once set up, public councils became dependent on the top officials in a specific government executive body. People could be appointed to these councils who received preferential treatment in the form of, for example, special IDs and faster solution of personal or business problems in exchange for their loyalty. In 2009, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Cabinet issued a new resolution to regulate these councils. On the one hand, it prevented irrelevant people and organizations from infiltrating them, but on the other hand, it introduced an unwieldy election mechanism. For example, members of councils attached to local government bodies had to be elected at a meeting of no less than one-fourth of NGOs registered in the region.

The same mechanism had to be used on the level of central government bodies but on a nationwide level. Now a resolution issued by Mykola Azarov’s Cabinet of Ministers eliminated this unfeasible approach, while at the same time making public councils de jure dependent on top officials in ministries and other executive bodies. Moreover, it failed to establish any qualifying criteria for “institutes of civil society” that can participate in the election and operation of the said councils. Religious organizations, women’s movements, trade unions and mass media all received equal rights to being elected.

And then NGOs rushed to take seats in councils in nearly 600 executive bodies. Virtually no attempts on the part of the government to obstruct the process have been reported. On the contrary, authorities provided rooms, equipment and their own representatives. This was all very good for a young democracy with a post-Soviet spirit and foggy prospects for the future. But then strange things began to come to the surface. Many seats on the council attached to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry were taken by representatives of the Embassy of God Church, including its pastor who was elected chairman. Something was rotten in the Ukrainian kingdom of civic equity and government transparency. A Swedish diplomat told me: It is only possible in a country like Iran for clergymen to chair councils attached to the country’s foreign ministry. Now, how do we prove that Ukraine is different?

Now imagine not even a ministry or a government committee but merely the San Francisco City Administration in the USA. It includes a department that awards grants to artistic organizations for their projects. Decisions are made by a panel of consultants rather than officials. There are the voice of the local public and have to decide what arts projects need to be supported in the interests of the city. The panel includes independent experts — artists, arts critics and culture managers. They are paid from the city budget, but the funding is subsumed under a different budget line than that of the department itself. They are appointed personally by the mayor or his deputy.

Americans spent a hundreds of hours and significant resources to work out a cooperation mechanism in San Francisco. Public opinion had to be taken into consideration – this is, after all, the main tactical goal of any “participation in policy making.” Expert knowledge had to have direct influence on the decision making process. Authorized and, most importantly, qualified public representatives had to be distanced from officials in terms of finances and functions. You could say that the whole thing is nothing more than “some grants for dancing and theater productions” in a city of 800,000 people (not counting the suburbs). Meanwhile, in Ukraine, this is a question of national security, foreign policy making and external economic relations, but the selection principles that are being applied would be appropriate for the district level at best.

Under the November 3, 2010 resolution, government bodies must consider proposals from respective public councils on draft legislation that embodies government policies in a particular area. Moreover, public councils may carry out assessments of draft decisions to be adopted by a government agency in order to rule out the possibility of corruption. If we again look at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the task of preventing bribery opportunities will be handled by a public council which is headed by a pastor of the Embassy of God Church and includes members representing its subsidiary organizations. Now the founder and leader of this church, Sunday Adelaja has been accused of involvement in the fraud perpetrated by the infamous King’s Capital.

In general, many great minds in more prosperous and mature democracies have pondered the dilemma: how can the equality and universality of the public’s participation in government policy making (when it is independent of government officials) be reconciled with the need to have expert knowledge and qualification to formulate any proposals and carry out public assessment of draft government resolutions? There is not one universally correct recipe. But as they evolved, these democracies came to understand two important things that are valid on either side of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. 

In what regards the operation of public councils, committees, juries etc., a virtually unconstrained implementation of the equality principle can only be adequately achieved on the local and regional level. In contrast, the said Ukrainian government resolution does not contain any qualifying requirements for NGOs on both the local and the national level. Meanwhile, it is fairly simple to set criteria for selecting NGOs to participate in councils attached precisely to ministries. One of them could be, for example, having at least two to three years of experience in the respective area.

Under the above resolution, public councils also have the right to involve experts. But it is precisely a right, not an obligation. For example, The Ukrainian Week knows that ex-Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk has not been invited to the public council in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even though it was common practice to involve the ministry’s one-time leaders in its public collegium. Now the ministry promises to set up a scholarly expert board whose decisions, as The Ukrainian Week learned from the ministry itself, will have merely advisory character, according to the draft resolution on its operation. Note that the proposals by the newly created council chaired by pastor Korman are, in contrast, mandatory. If public councils are to be complemented with scholarly expert boards, their scope and the force of their proposals have to be coordinated in a way that makes sense.

All these mutations of Ukraine’s democratic institutions can be viewed as institutional isomorphism. The term means that features and methods are copied from one institution to another. This phenomenon is very common in transitional states which try to fashion democracy on the foundation of old, non-democratic norms and rules by copying foreign practices without proper analysis. If the process is not given due consideration, a mutation, rather than metamorphosis, will occur. How will you then prove that Ukraine is not Iran? Public councils can easily be formed in authoritarian states and under dictatorships. They will not de jure contradict the ruling regime.

Public discussions Ukrainian style

In March, two international NGOs, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, pulled out of the working group tasked with drafting election legislation and headed by Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych. 

Foreign experts explained that the group was not working transparently. In particular, it was unable to obtain access to the working version of the draft election law. Analysts in the leading Ukrainian think tanks who joined the Public Consortium for Electoral Initiatives to influence new draft election legislation are still complaining that the Ukrainian government is ignoring expert opinion.

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