Opinion: Estonia world champion in governance?
Recent in-depth analysis of the costs of the election manifesto promises of all the political parties in Estonia revealed proposals which would cost money vastly exceeded those which would bring in revenue. Whilst this was not surprising, writes Rauno Vinni, many political parties have also offered a reduction in bureaucracy and cutting back of officialdom. But would such state reform actually help to solve the shortage of resources? There is a strange paradox where reducing bureaucracy actually costs money, making it difficult to afford to reduce said bureaucracy.
All political parties are promising new services at these elections, and large-scale investment into key areas like education, health, international and external security, social policy etc. However, the gulf between how much implementing these costs, and the potential which could be reaped from them, is so great, that merely trimming back the state apparatus is not going to be enough to garner the resources needed.
Inevitably, the choice which this paradox presents will have to be made between borrowing, or raising taxes, or even doing both, to cover the cost of public services. Alternatively, parties would need to state clearly what functions the state is willing to give up in order to meet the required funds.
State reform has been a clarion call for many parties ahead of the 2019 elections. Reducing bureaucracy, combining functions, negotiating funding between state and local-level government, access to public services, developing e-services, strengthening the Riigikogu's role [government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu-ed.] and empowering communities have been constantly sounded. Reform, Centre, Estonia 200, Isamaa, the Social Democratic Party (SDE) and the Free Party are all carrying the torch for state reform, which is encouraging.
Virtually all the parties claim to be combatting bureaucracy
All the political parties have promised to fight bureaucracy and reduce the administrative burden on both businesses and citizens. The volume of legislation should fall, they say, reducing the volume of requirements and concomitant enforcement costs.
Some parties have even come up with quantifiable ideas – for instance Estonia 200 has promised to cut the burden of administration by a third, and SDE by a quarter. This is significant, since a cut down in bureaucracy is not merely about saving money; excessive bureaucracy undermines citizens' trust in the state. But party manifestos still lack concrete ideas on how to carry this out.
However, as in the fairy tales, the administrative dragon does tend to sprout new wings almost as soon as the old ones were lopped off. Thus, there is surely a need for change in the administrative culture and its legal basis; but electoral platforms come up short on how to achieve this.
If political parties make promises which should be extended in the future, this cannot happen in a legal vacuum. There is an inherent contradiction between making promises to reduce the administrative burden while at the same time broadening the welfare of citizens and boosting business. The implementation of most of the electoral platforms would lead to a rise in the volume of legislation. Curbing bureaucracy needs to be dealt with systematically, but the hundreds of millions needed to implement election platforms can't yet be found by simply reducing bureaucracy, even if new technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), is developed to extract precious metals from the earth.
e-governance has been the focus of much attention in electoral programs, which is good because its rapid development needs clear political leadership and an electoral mandate, as well as the actual technical expertise. But are we ready for this? Such questions need discussion. In many places, e-governance helps optimise services and boost their availability. However, ''e-governance 2.0'' does not guarantee any direct financial savings, since technological investments are substantial, and yet still not all of the services will be deliverable via electronic channels.
Need for realism
It would be better if politicians were to be frank and say that better access to vital services does not necessarily equate to uniform standards across Estonia. An ambulance, for instance, is not going to reach Tõstamaa [a small village to the west of Pärnu-ed.] as quickly as it would Pärnu town centre, even though both places are covered by the same municipality. Certain differences in availability are inevitable, in other words; implying anything to the contrary through promises is misleading.
Another important factor is that the EU structural funding will not go on forever – and this has been the source of much of the development of both e-services and other types of service. What happens when the EU money starts to dry up? On this, only Reform has brought up what is a very serious issue. Other parties seem to think that the EU can continue to be milked, even though deep down they know that it cannot.
Nevertheless, the tension between economic needs and opportunities can sometimes yield some pretty inventive solutions. The need for state reform is even more acute in situations where things will have to be done differently. Innovation is not solely to make savings – it is equally important that quality is improved too. For instance, the ''State Reform Radar'' (Estonian: Riigireform Radar), which was a joint initiative of the employers' federation and Praxis, sets the credibility and capability of the state as reform objectives every bit as much as affordability.
Politicians in many developed countries have come to realise that supporting public sector innovation is good for winning voter hearts and minds. Therefore, in addition to developing e-solutions, we can also try to find suggestions on the improvement in the state's capacity within party manifestos.
For instance, Estonia 200 promotes forming a unified governing body to address the fragmented agencies, murky lines of responsibility, and poor levels of cooperation. One way to start this would be by merging ministries in the one building, Estonia 200 says. Isamaa looks at the need to increase strategic management capabilities. Others look at the improvement and use of AI (Centre, Reform, Estonia 200).
Estonia 200, Centre and Isamaa have all also promised a ''zero-based'' state budget. However, looking at the global experience, in reality this doesn't work out in its purest form. Too many aspects of our state budget are enshrined in the law to make it realistic, although they are on the right track with the concept. It is important to take a closer look at cost allocations and efficiency from time to time; even laws can be changed, when that is required.
State reform needn't be a point of difference on forming a coalition
So far as other state-related capabilities go, such as policy development, improving the quality of management, new governance models and so on, most of the parties have promised something here, though these have tended to be somewhat rhetorical (an exception is the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), whose manifesto so far as state governance goes is pretty scarce). Whilst the generality of those promises made can be criticised, let's instead interpret the situation like this: When parties understand the necessity of developing the state's capacity, more detailed solutions can follow on later. Moreover, although electoral programs from different parties do contradict each other in places, they by no means prevent the creation of a joint program from any potential coalition.
The third objective of state reform, namely improving the state's credibility, is related to the quality of democracy when analysing electoral party platforms. The most talked-about topics are extending the voice of the people and their initiatives via referendums, changes to the way the president is elected, and alterations to the electoral system. Parties as noted also talk a lot about strengthening the Riigikogu's role, and there has been strong consensus on boosting the role of local communities in both local decisions and service provision.
So far as the development of democracy goes, however, solutions on offer tend to be either a bit crude, or running counter to the interests of other parties, which might predictably lead to disputes. But these particular promises aren't the most significant planks of manifestos and are unlikely to obstruct the formation of a coalition if there is otherwise agreement on economic, social, educational or health issues. So it's no bad thing that possible solutions can be looked at calmly by a range of experts and others, before the government's policy is set in stone.
Pointing in the right direction
Without a doubt there will be no salvation resulting from the parties' promises of state reform which provides an immediate exodus from the paradox of shrinking resources (a declining taxpayer base) requiring improved resources (in the form of better social protection for the aged, a more demanding populace etc.). On the other hand, in the absence of simple solutions, politicians need to think beyond pure cost savings. A comprehensive state reform is, in the end, inevitable, because more capable public servants, streamlined processes and properly functioning institutions are in any case needed to deliver on parties' promises.
The majority of the parties in Estonia grasp the need for a reform of state governance. You could also complain, however, that the quality of the election promises could be better: Visions are dull (for instance, on the issue of artificial intelligence – in Finland, a mere 1% of the population is trained in this sphere!), innovation is not broadly understood, and tends to be limited to e-governance, and many promises in the current government's action program have still gone unfulfilled.
That said, it is also important to recall that five years ago [ie. just before the last general election-ed.] the topic of state reform was not even on the political agenda. Now, parties are asking for a mandate from the electorate with state reform firmly embedded in their programs.
Election promises don't block Estonia from pursuing the title of ''governmental champion of the word'' (since this is a measurable target, whose results could be evaluated based on an index of state governments). Additionally, manifestos carry with them a whole range of good governance principles, which the citizenry can always remind politicians of, if the latter start flagging in their commitment to them.
Rauno Vinni is governance program manager at Estonian think tank Praxis. Rauno's area of expertise is models of good governance, and he is interested in administrative order, the management of public services and public sector personnel policy.
Editor: Andrew Whyte