What changes will European civil service reform bring to Ukraine?

Author: Tetiana Kovtun, Deputy State Secretary of the Cabinet of Ministers

June 23  is Civil Service Day and, in Ukraine, this sector is on the verge of significant and necessary changes. 

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Tetiana Kovtun

While the aspect is often overlooked, civil service reform is also a part of Ukraine’s European integration efforts.


Ukraine is faced with the challenge of bringing governance quality into close alignment with EU standards. This, in turn, should increase the transparency of government structures and accelerate the pace of European reforms in all areas.


The basic principle of the civil service in a democratic country is political neutrality.

The government and party in power may change, but this should not affect the work of state institutions. The civil service should be accountable to society and serve the community, not itself or politicians.

All Ukraine’s western neighbours that are new members of the EU went through the process of building a civil service according to the European model. The principles and rules guiding this “construction” process are defined by the SIGMA program: a joint initiative of the OECD and the European Union aimed at improving state administration.

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Ukraine has now begun implementing these rules and has already taken a number of important steps.

First of all, Ukraine has worked to separate political positions from those of civil servants. The party that is in power should not affect the quality of the state apparatus, as the competitiveness and capacity of the whole country depend on it. In order to ensure the political neutrality of the civil service, an institute of state secretaries, who are appointed by ministries for five years, has been established in Ukraine.

Now it’s time for the second extremely important step: reform of the ministries.

This process has the goal of focusing the ministries and the entire government on its main function: the formation of policies.

What would this mean for society, business, and individual citizens?

Even though the number of civil servants per capita is very high in Ukraine, the country ranks very low in international ratings for the quality of governance (114th place in the public-sector performance indicator of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report).

There are a number of reasons for this. Today, the ministries are large holdings that own enterprises, manage properties, and provide services. Being overloaded with operational activities, they often simply do not have time to solve the problems in the industries they are responsible for developing.

But the main problem, which is often overlooked, is that the ministries do not fulfill their key functions: to form policies in their areas of responsibility, plan ahead, foresee challenges and respond to them, and interact effectively with society.

Ministries as think tanks

How do things work in ministries today?

Decisions are adopted “in the bowels” of the civil service, often without discussion or adequate justification and are filtered down to be executed.

Ministries issue separate regulations instead of developing a coherent policy that is transparent and understandable to society and business.

Citizens and businesses are the last to hear about decisions and this very often means that their only recourse to object is in the form of a protest.

No one is satisfied with this current approach. Citizens and businesses, because they do not understand the logic behind the government’s actions, feel cheated. The government also suffers, because even having done a lot of work to develop a solution to the problem, it does not receive society’s approval, but instead a “betrayal.”

Ukraine’s task is to move away from this approach to policy making, which is characteristic of totalitarian countries.

By introducing European governance practices, Ukraine needs to establish a transparent, civilized process in which the government first discusses an idea, develops a general approach to solving the problem (that is, formulates a policy), and only then takes action.

There are several steps necessary to achieve this goal:

First, Ukraine must release the ministries from their extra functions, that is, the management of state enterprises, inspections, checking, provision of services, issuing licenses, etc. According to OECD standards, it is impossible to combine long-term planning and operational functions.

Second, Ukraine must focus government on policy making and transform the ministries into compact analytical structures: centers of expertise and knowledge in their fields. Ministries must provide reasonable rationales for their decisions, investigate all possible solutions to any problem, consult with society and stakeholders, and make decisions only after thorough analysis and discussion.

Third, Ukraine must significantly strengthen the staffing of the civil service by hiring new, young professionals with good educations, practical work experience, and a desire to change their country for the better.

The reform of the 10 ministries is aimed precisely at these steps. offcials.jpg

Directors General on the civil service

Within the framework of the reform process, new subdivisions called directorates will be created in each of the pilot ministries. Their function will be the formation of policies according to the approaches followed by all developed countries (including policy analysis, impact assessment, consulting with stakeholders, etc.).

This concept might be familiar to those who are interested in EU policy formation. The European Commission has 31 Directorates General focused on issues where there is a need to formulate a common EU-wide policy. These include, for example, the Directorates-General for Energy, the Environment, and the European Neighborhood Policy. Each of these subdivisions is headed by a Director General.

In Ukraine, the number of directorates will depend on the areas of responsibility of the relevant ministry.

For example, within the Ministry of Culture there may be directorates on culture and art, ethnopolitics, and religion; in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there could be directorates in the law enforcement area, and migration; the Ministry of Social Policy could include directorates for employment, and social protection. Currently, 10 ministries are undergoing a process of examining their functions, which will be followed by the creation of directorates.

The issues associated with the implementation of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and accompanying reforms, should be resolved through the creation of these directorates.

Let’s take the Ministry of Agrarian Policy as an example. Today it has a deputy minister for European integration, and a deputy responsible for food safety. There is also is a veterinary service. The implementation of the Association Agreement means a tremendous amount of work for this ministry related to food safety.

The Agreement includes many commitments for Ukraine, and it is logical that the specialists in the relevant directorate would deal with reforms in their area. Future ministry employees should be experts in the industry, know English, and negotiate effectively with the appropriate division of the European Commission.

Directorates should become effective think tanks, investigating issues and offering politicians solutions to problems. Ideally, the ministry structure will consist of a minister, his or her deputies (the political level), the state secretary, general directors and secretariats, becoming “back offices” of ministries.

Another important element of a new structure should be new directorates of strategic planning, policy coordination, and European integration. These will deal with work planning within each ministry based on a set of requirements and tasks including the Association Agreement, the budget, the IMF Memorandum, and other international agreements and initiatives. They will also be responsible for coordinating the European integration processes in the ministries.

New rules and new people

In order to introduce new rules of work in the civil service, new people with strong analytical skills,  English-language abilities, and competence in the ministry’s subject matter, are needed.

Of course, new officials, including general directors, will also receive a new, market-level salary.

The government plans to start hiring beginning in September when the first open competitions for reform specialists will be announced.

These officials will be selected by updated hiring committees formed by the Secretariat of the Cabinet of Ministers jointly with Hudson, a well-known staff recruitment company. The competitions will be popularised with the help of Internews-Ukraine. Both companies will assist the government within the framework of EU technical support in the implementation of the state administration reform.

The EU appreciates and supports Ukraine’s direction and its mechanisms for implementing civil service reform.

The direct evidence of this is that Ukraine has begun receiving budget support that will total €100 million under the “Support to comprehensive reform of public administration in Ukraine” program.

In May, Ukraine received the first tranche of €10 million.

Although this is not targeted assistance (the money goes to the general fund of the state budget), EU financial support will help us on the road to reforming.

Furthermore, the financial support is an indication that we are moving in the right direction. The transfer was possible only following the approval of the new law on civil service and the development of the public administration reform strategy.

Of course, the reform process has only just begun; it is extensive and extremely complex. But we believe that with the support of international partners and experts, and on the condition we provide clear direction to civil servants, we will be able to cope with this task and bring the civil service in our country to a new, European level.

This will enable our citizens to feel the positive impact of European integration even at the level of the civil service.

Posted by Tetiana Kovtun, the Deputy State Secretary of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine

 We are grateful to the Evropeiska pravda for cooperation in publishing this material.   (The article was published on June 23, 2017)