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Jaak Aaviksoo: Narrative administration

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

The vaccination challenge is not the only problem we are facing when it comes to public administration. Similar management troubles have been manifesting in different walks of life. We would be deluding ourselves to think these problems only concern the current cabinet or a single ministry, Jaak Aaviksoo writes.

Despite a hot summer and vacations, Auditor General Janar Holm's recent letter seems to have hit home at Stenbock House. I suppose it has been realized that patience is beginning to run out and something should be done.

Good news, while it is not the first letter the auditor general has sent to the government on the subject of organization of vaccination. It is three and a half months from the previous one, while criticism is virtually identical – there is no plan and goals, administration remains unclear, processes hectic and incomprehensible.

While it might still have looked like a bureaucratic problem in spring, incompetence in how the process has been managed, including on the political level, has become impossible to deny. I would very much like to hope this much has been realized and that relevant decisions will follow.

At the same time, the vaccination challenge is far from being the only problem we are facing when it comes to public administration. Similar troubles have been manifesting in different ways for some time now. We would be deluding ourselves to think these problems only concern the current cabinet or a single ministry.

I have dubbed the phenomenon narrative administration. It occurred to me when I was watching a press conference where a reporter's rather specific question merited as the answer a comprehensive overview of the interviewee's knowledge, highlighting especially the complexity of the problem and the need to consider every person. I was reminded of a gutsy student who when trying to find a way around a question they obviously did not know the answer to said that they much preferred narrative subject at school.

But this is not about humanities versus the sciences. The problem is the gradually expanding notion that solving problems can be replaced by aligning the right words and resorting to exuberant empathy. While this has admittedly been more difficult to do in the natural than social sciences, that does not change the big picture. The reason for this can be explained by looking at healthcare where the "human dimension" has always been important next to hard and cold knowledge-based medicine. The need to please.

There is another trend that tends to interfere with administration. Open communication serves as the basis of good governance in an egalitarian society, while it can entail tragic consequences when misinterpreted.

Seeing oneself as one of many, trying to accommodate all different opinions imaginable and attempting to satisfy every expectation can easily culminate in being unable to tell apart what matters and what doesn't. This renders goals blurry and complicates decision-making. Overlooking being in the driver's seat altogether is sadder still – a bus driver who leaves the wheel to engage in an inclusive conversation with a passenger becomes a liability.

Making decisions is what leaders do, while rulers must make decisions and execute them following political preferences. The task cannot be delegated nor can it be replaced with doing something else.

This understandably comes with responsibility, which is often than subconscious burden that breaks the camel's back. It forces one to avoid or at least postpone making decisions, replacing it instead with long-winded explanations of the complexity of thing, forming endless bodies and committees and other types of replacement activity. In hopes that problems will sort themselves out.

The auditor general deserves recognition for persistent and effective efforts at pointing to problems, while the latter still need to be solved by those elected to do so. It would be wonderful to find the auditor general's efforts have not been in vain in August, which is when he has promised to present the government with his broader opinion of coronavirus crisis management.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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