Analysis: Public administration in elections programs

Riigikogu building.
Riigikogu building. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Researchers Külli Taro and Kersten Kattai find that while parties' promises for empowering local governments are more diverse and concrete these elections, there are still plenty of vague ideas and slogans devoid of subject matter.

More than a few public administration promises by parties concern problems it has been in the state's power to solve all along.

For example, most programs include the principle of asking people for their data only once. It was also among the main public administration promises of the 2019 elections. The guideline according to which data should only be sought once has been included in the general principles of administrative procedure for some time, while its implementation has been the problem.

We should ask why parties that have been part of different coalitions have failed to make enough progress for the matter to be turned into an election promise once more. The promise to reduce classification of data based on the Public Information Act (the so-called "internal use only" label) could also be fulfilled by properly applying existing legislation.

The Reform Party promises to improve availability of public data by creating a "legal and technical basis for making all public data (with the exception of state secrets) available in a machine readable form without requiring identification."

The feasibility of such a plan could get stuck behind data safety and privacy rules. Modern data processing technologies allow a sufficient mass of anonymous data to be associated with specific persons. Do we really want the Health Insurance Fund's treatment invoices, prescriptions etc. to be freely available?

One step forward, two steps back

Almost all parties seem to be after shorten judicial (especially criminal) proceedings and more effective preliminary investigation. The Social Democratic Party (SDE) proposes switching to "adversary proceedings only," while it is the source of many current problems. There is also talk of reducing overregulation and red tape, while this rather remains on the level of slogans.

There has similarly been nothing to stop Riigikogu parties from making good on another resurfacing election promise to put an end to sprawling legislative drafting. The Reform Party promises that the new "government will make a proposal to the Riigikogu to repeal unnecessary laws in 2024. The government and ministries will repeal unnecessary government and ministerial regulations."

It is also promised to set up a system of after-assessment of legislation from 2025. The assessment will be carried out five years after a law is passed by the Riigikogu committee that was in charge of proceedings. The Riigikogu would then have to decide whether to keep the law in effect, amend or repeal it. While the proposal is interesting, it would be better to test it out in a narrower field before going down the path of mass repeals.

State budget remains opaque

Eesti 200 want to revisit Estonia's state budget process in terms of transparency, legibility and administrative burden. SDE promises to "make the state budget activities-based, its goals measurable and the way it is presented accessible to non-experts." That said, the budget is already based on activities, which transition is the root cause of many of its problems (especially illegibility). Rather, experts are talking about the need to return to a measure of expenses and agency-based reckoning.

Many election promises treat with development of digital services. SDE stands out in suggesting that the state needs to be there for people who prefer to do things on paper and face to face. It is not a matter of preferences, but access. We must not forget that not all adults own a computer or know how to use one.

Newcomer promises plenty of changes

Coming to the part of programs dealing with the central government, Eesti 200's program could be considered the most ambitious. The party has come up with several intriguing proposals regarding the feasibility and effect of which there is no certainty.

For example, the party promises to create a "united central administration made up of the Government Office, reform teams, Riigikogu Foresight Center and Bank of Estonia analysis centers." The proposal infringes slightly on the principle of the separation and balance of powers as leaving other constitutional institutions, such as the Riigikogu or the Bank of Estonia, without analytical units would not allow them to act as balancers of executive power.

The party's promise to notify all affected persons of a planned amendment's direct effect in terms of their rights, obligations and activities might also run into serious implementational obstacles.

In the case of the promise to "reduce by half the time state institutions have to answer people" the risk of officials denying applications just in case, which people would then need to challenge, is created. It could end up adding to administrative burden and the time it takes to process applications.

Eesti 200 also wants a principle that would see "at least two old and equivalent legal norms repealed" every time a new one is passed. Here the question of what we consider equivalent legal norms is created. For example, which two norms should have been repealed after Estonia passed the mandatory switch to teaching in Estonian?

Lack of idea veiled in vagueness

Some administration related promises are vague enough to make it difficult to understand the intention behind them. For example, the Social Democrats promise us a "state that considers the needs of people and companies," while EKRE stand firm in the protection of the "superiority of the Estonian Constitution."

The Center Party stands out especially in this regard where it seeks to "improve the quality of legislative drafting and reduce general bureaucracy through state regulation" and "approach state reform sensibly, considering people's expectations and hiking the quality of policy and administration" for just a few examples.

The Social Democrats want to "support state agencies being based outside major cities." The legal address (physical location) of agencies is increasingly less important due to the possibilities offered by remote working. Regional dispersion of agencies is an old Center Party idea that culminated in the campaign to take state jobs out of Tallinn during the time of Jüri Ratas' first government.

The Isamaa party seems to have realized that agency locations do not need to change as places people can work can be scattered and institutions can hire people from all over Estonia. This exception aside, the rest of Isamaa's "Public administration and state reform" chapter is largely lifted from its 2019 campaign.

The Greens promise to limit the number of officials and politicians on state and municipal company and foundations' supervisory boards. While the proposal is welcome on the municipal level, state company supervisory boards are already appointed by a special expert panel.

Administrative reform follow-up

Predictably, platforms also treat with the follow-up of the 2017 local government reform. Regional and local politics are quite thoroughly represented.

The local government autonomy index, which compares different components of local government autonomy in European countries, reveals the bottlenecks of how local governments in Estonia function and the relationship between them and the central government. These are weak financial autonomy and limited access to mid-level policymaking.

In these aspects, Estonia's local government organization lags behind even Central and Eastern Europe. Local governments' considerable freedom of decision in shaping their own policy and organizing local affairs is rendered meaningless in a situation where they lack the financials means to do it. Local government revenue consists mostly of government grants some of which come with a so-called label and are earmarked for certain activities. Therefore, local governments in Estonia have the ability to manage their expenses but not revenue.

The choices are relatively simple when it comes to increasing the cost autonomy of local governments. Isamaa promises to find ways to make sure less of local governments' revenue is for intended purposes, while the Social Democrats want to hike the equalization fund volume and [local governments'] maximum loan burden.

The Greens want to give local governments more control over income tax revenue and vow to strengthen the periphery parameters of the equalization fund. The Center Party simply promises to increase local governments' revenue base without going into detail. However, all of these measures are being taken today.

Joint offices in place of county governments

The Reform Party wants to motivate local governments to come together in "joint offices to offer better public services." Joint offices (Reform gives the example of a planning office shared by several local governments) would constitute tangible administrative reform progress.

Consolidating local level administration is inescapable if we want to improve the quality of public services and leadership. The legal framework was created during the administrative reform of 2017, while it has not found use. It is another matter how parties plan to motivate such consolidation.

The Center Party wants to increase local governments' decision-making capacity and budgets. "Only matters of national importance should be solved on the central government level," the party's program reads. Tasks that could be delegated to local governments were sought in the course of the 2017 reform, before that and will also be sought in the future. No such search has proved fruitful so far.

Different roadmaps to income autonomy

Four parties (Reform, SDE, Eesti 200 and Greens) focus on the issue of local governments' income autonomy but propose different ways of improving the situation.

The Reform Party wants to offer more flexibility for laying down local taxes as well as consider pension revenue and places of work and residence. SDE and Greens also believe it necessary to allow local governments to introduce local taxes, pointing to environmental and tourism fees - a congestion tax, pollution tax and tourism tax. While these tax proposals are too marginal to make a serious difference in terms of local governments' revenue base, the ideas are worth discussing.

Unfortunately, recent experience with such local taxes in Estonia (for example, motor vehicle or boat taxes) is hardly encouraging in terms of boosting local governments' income. The surest way to improve income autonomy would be to turn individual income tax into a local tax and allow municipalities to change the tax rate, while no such agreement between parties seems to be on the horizon.

Eesti 200 want local government financing to be tied more closely to business development - they perceive a part of corporate VAT going to local governments as a potential solution. They would also allow people to split their income tax contribution between two places of residence.

Recent debates on sending a part of VAT local governments' way have gotten stuck behind the challenge of territorially defining the place where turnover is created, for example, in the case of online shops, platforms, international (global) companies. Defining several places of residence poses challenges in terms of exercising civil rights (for example, would that also mean voting in several areas) and services planning (for instance, whether the person should be eligible for kindergarten places in two local governments).

It is necessary to highlight such matters in elections programs so debates could reach a culmination and for political choices to be made.

Increasing local governments' expenses and income autonomy has a firm place in parties' election programs. A public problem making the institutional agenda is a precondition for any actual political program to follow. Election programs are a source of optimism in this regard.

Threefold differences in county GDP

There are notable differences in GDP per capita of Estonian counties, up to threefold. Recent activities are not proving effective at ensuring regional development, which is why it is necessary to scan elections programs for new initiatives.

Reform and Isamaa have highlighted the need for regional development agreements and councils. A pilot program is underway for Southern and Central Estonia, while it seems that broader political demand is developing.

The Reform Party states in its program that Estonia could optimally have five regions the councils of which would have the final say in terms of regional investment priorities. Reform also plan to create regional programs to foster distinctive features and smart specialization. Both are worthy initiatives.

Return of regional structures

Defining regions and drawing corresponding borders is clearly a political choice. The Center Party bets on a regional development activity plan on which national regional programs should be based. SDE prioritizes a measure to create 15,000 new jobs in rural areas. Local governments, entrepreneurs and representatives of employees are planned to be involved in the corresponding investment plan.

An ambitious proposal that nevertheless raises a plethora of questions, especially considering that labor shortage is a core challenge for rural area businesses. Eesti 200 promises to divide Estonia into two regional areas (Tallinn and Harju County versus the rest of Estonia) to channel two-thirds of EU enterprise support outside Harju County. Companies making major investments would be looking at a dividends income tax break.

Regional councils and development agreements as common ground would be entirely appropriate ways of making regional choices (programs, investments etc.). That said, regional development agreements are the only solution parties propose for the bottleneck of local level autonomy where local governments have scant access to central policymaking.

Regional promises in election platforms are encouraging in terms of parties' willingness to initiate follow-up activities of the 2017 administrative reform.

Leaving aside some vague and declarative proposals, parties' ideas reflect several practical initiatives and choices. There is plenty of common ground, and much of what is suggested could have been done a long time ago. Several at first glance new and interesting ideas require more analysis. For example, while Eesti 200's personal digital state concept is attractive, it has been difficult to appraise so far. It might be that smaller pilot projects are needed to gauge the value of certain initiatives.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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