Meelis Oidsalu: Estonians still suffering from a slight European hangover

Meelis Oidsalu.
Meelis Oidsalu. Source: ERR/ Ken Mürk

The Estonian state is ruled by officials with two plus decades of experience after which time a measure of fatigue is inevitably created, whereas it serves no purpose to refer to it as the "peculiarity of public service." It is just fatigue that in some cases has morphed into stiffness, Meelis Oidsalu finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Estonian residents can take pride in their country, if only because Estonians have to spend relatively little time dealing with bureaucrats when compared to the rest of the world. This does not apply to all public services but it is something Estonia has made conscious efforts toward, and it is a good direction.

Estonia's advantage was the possibility to completely overhaul the public sector system. While we inherited some public services from which the Soviet smell was washed only in the last decade, generally speaking, we did not have a weight tied to our legs when we restarted the country. We were able to start from scratch with more than a few things, which lent us the necessary acceleration out of the gate.

Some of our public services are even world-class. Let us take the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) that Director Elmar Vaher has shaped into one of the leading police organizations in the world during his nine years in office. Every time I see a police officer on the street, I feel affectionate toward Estonia and thankful for it.

Digital tools have made going to the doctor entirely tolerable. We have one of the most efficient healthcare systems in the world and solid treatment quality to boot. There are other examples to confirm that, unlike Ukraine, we were right to bring new young people to public administration in the 1990s. The move, among other things, ruled out the emergence of oligarchy, at least to the extent it can be seen in some other Eastern European states.

Many people serving as secretaries general of ministries or holding other high public offices today started their public administration, law or history studies at around the same time.

The second half of the nineties. Public administration was popular then. The public administration course at Tallinn University drew 28 applications per student place.

We were excited by the prospect of building a country but were taught by lecturers whose experience was from the Soviet era. Our public administration professor said, when highlighting the peculiarities of the subject, that public service is sinecure rather than actual work. We laughed behind their back, while it was still largely the case in the early 2000s. We had an education but no work experience or culture.

Things got busy when we were invited to join the EU and NATO. Western officials who came over, for example, to negotiate Estonia's preparedness to join NATO, were initially disappointed as meetings were full of rambling, with Estonian officials and [military] professionals talking about units that only existed on paper, getting things mixed up etc. We were embarrassed ourselves and realized we hadn't fully arrived yet.

EU and NATO membership brought us to Europe and we soon proved to be much less post-Soviet than was initially believed. Estonia had to make a serious effort to integrate with the EU, with our political agency and center of power temporarily migrating to Brussels.

It must have come as a relief to Estonian politicians when certain political choices could simply be explained as requirements from Brussels and European consensus which it was in bad taste to challenge. It basically exempt top officials from the obligation of political planning and weighing-substantiating decisions as the future was already set, had been agreed. Somewhere else.

I would suggest that Estonia has not regained the ability of sovereign policymaking, at least not to the point that the altered circumstances demand. We are still a little euro-hungover and seem to think that we are still living in the second half of the 2000s or the beginning of the previous decade when obscure over-the-shoulder references and use of foreign words was enough to legitimize political choices.

We have run out of places to defer to as the world and the European Union with it have changed. Like always, not all change is bad. The playing field has become more difficult for countries, less predictable, while, as demonstrated by the coronavirus and Belarus' migration attack last year, European consensus is not as immutable nor its management as centralized and rigid as we have been told by both populist Euroskeptics and Europopulists.

The Ukraine war also demonstrates that governments can still take responsibility for political choices even as part of the EU, and that a small country still has a voice and countenance in Europe. They are those of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas today. It is possible to take the lead also in public administration, while that requires different administration, the kind that can inspire innovation and does not think of public services and service as an organization but rather a network connecting all social sectors, a platform of communal renewal.

Unlike in the 2000s, Estonia is ruled by officials with two plus decades of experience after which time a measure of fatigue is inevitably created, whereas it serves no purpose to refer to it as the "peculiarity of public service." It is just fatigue that in some cases has morphed into stiffness. Just like stiffness can be cured through exercise, every administrative system needs change to stay with the times.

Considering extensive security and other changes of environment, it is baffling how thoroughly the sate reform subject matter has disappeared from public discourse. The local government reform was carried out in 2015, while conclusions need to be drawn and the next phase planned to make sure our local governments can cope with population aging.

It is to be feared that we will hear nothing on the state reform moving closer to 2023 elections. It is convenient for political parties to run the state in a constant crisis regime. It is to be feared that the current cluster crisis will last for at least another decade. If we do not want governments and public administration that operates like an underfunded fire department, it is high time to talk about state reform. I will not be recounting the individual reasons for it because there is no need. OECD experts and our own State Reform Foundation have made all the necessary proposals back in 2011 and 2015. Let us simply put them to work.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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