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Georgia: Coping with success

Jaba Devdariani|

How do you mobilize political support for further reforms in public service provision, when 88% of customers are happy with what you do? Georgia is grappling with an unusual dilemma of coping with success in public administration reform.

A survey fielded by UNDP Georgia has covered a representative sample of 2400 across the country and found that 28% are “very satisfied” with public services they received in the past year, while additional 60% are “satisfied”.

This is no mean feat. Georgia has inherited weak civil service and loads of red tape from the Soviet system upon gaining independence in 1991. As instability and civil war ensued, the governance collapsed. Inefficiency and corruption were rampant throughout 1990s, many crucial public services were not provided. By early 2000s many analysts referred to the country as a “failed state”. Georgia trailed the bottom of the World Bank’s governance and doing business indices.

Fast forward to 2016, and Georgia ranks 16th in the Doing Business rating. It scores above Europe and Central Asia region and upper middle income country averages in regulatory quality, government effectiveness and control of corruption indicators of the WB Governance Index.

Improvement of public service delivery has been at the forefront of this success, and one of its showcases. Innovative “public service halls” also known as “Justice Houses” that were rolled out starting 2011, received UN Public Service award in 2012. Conceived by young officers and IT specialists in the Ministry of Justice and inspired by service delivery model of the banking sector, the Justice Houses moved beyond the idea of receiving key government services through “a single window”. Instead, they focused on digitizing and merging most of the ‘back office’ functions across the agencies, cutting the red tape, eliminating redundant regulations and dramatically increasing timeliness and efficiency. Over 300 services are now delivered this way, through ever-expanding network of the service centers.

But success – and resulting public satisfaction – comes with its own challenges. Initial success came through the combination of political push, expert enthusiasm and the willingness to think outside the legalistic box. Efficiency is only one measure of public policy’s success. To provide lasting results, it should also be sustainable and effective. The positive improvisations must become rules; money-wasting ones – pruned or offloaded to private sectors; successes – codified in standard catalogues; failures – reflected upon. But why would the political decision-makers dedicate their attention – and budget – for fixing what seems to be working perfectly well?

The same research provides some hints. Service quality has increased overall, but crucial segments – such as social and health services, and some services provided through local administrations are lagging far behind. The respondents are twice as likely to be dissatisfied about services received there. Focus group interviews with civil servants suggest some of the more innovative staff are dissatisfied at the slowing pace of changes and seek new outlets. To make sure Georgia’s success is sustained, the established islands of excellence must be preserved, and their expertise used to pull up the lagging sectors.

As the new Law on Civil Service is slated to enter into force by mid-2017, Georgia and its development partners prepare to take on the challenge of steering the public service in a more strategic and sustainable manner.

Achieving the initial breakthrough has been Georgia’s spectacular achievement, and an example to its many neighbors. Sustaining this achievement might prove at least as testing.

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