November 21, 2007
Narrowing It Down to One Window [Re: Bureaucracy]
By Nikolaus von Twickel
Editor's note: This is the last in a series of stories about bureaucracy.
When Ulya Kustova's international passport expired this summer, she knew that getting a new one was likely to be a cumbersome process. But the ordeal that followed was even worse than she had imagined and provides a perfect case study of a plague that experts say the country will not be able to eradicate any time soon: bureaucracy.
In order to receive her new foreign passport, Kustova, a 24-year-old documentary filmmaker who has lived in Moscow for five years, had to produce her internal passport, which she had left in her native Ufa, the capital of the republic of Bashkortostan. She asked her mother to send it to her by registered mail, but when it arrived the post office refused to hand over the letter unless she provided identification.
"It was awful," Kustova said in a recent telephone interview. "First, they said my [international] passport had expired; Then, they said I could not use it as identification within the country; and finally they complained that the photo was not current."
Her argument that they could look at her valid domestic passport by simply opening the letter got her nowhere. She only succeeded in getting her hands on the letter at the main federal post office, which accepted her driver's license as proof of identity.
The process took a month, she said.
Stories like Kustova's tend to be the rule rather than the exception, and tales like this abound, reinforcing attitudes about the basic lack of organization of the country's bureaucracy.
Measures to improve things are on the way.
In 2005, President Vladimir Putin lashed out against the country's myriad layers of officialdom in his address to the nation, saying he had no intention of putting the country at the disposal of an ineffective, corrupt bureaucracy.
This summer, the Cabinet kicked off an e-Government project designed to allow people to apply for other things like passports, drivers licenses or child allowance payments or even pay traffic fines online.
The aim of the project is to set up web sites that bundle government services and offices, eliminating the necessity to visit multiple agencies and locations. The Moscow City government had been operating the system, dubbed odno okno, or "one window," on a trial basis for some time (okno.mos.ru).
"They are definitely doing something in the right direction," said Ivan Valkov, a Bulgarian IT expert currently working on a EU-funded project that acts as a consultant for the government on administrative reforms, including E-government.
Valkov said such initiatives could help greatly reduce the time and effort people have to invest to get the simplest things done.
Single window systems standardizing procedures have already been in place in a large number of countries for years now to help make it easier for people to get things done through governmental agencies.
But they have been slow to arrive in Russia. Moscow City Hall announced earlier this month that it would broaden their use after trials at the district level yielded positive results.
Unfortunately, businesspeople who have been working with the new system say the opportunity for improvement is being wasted.
Ruslan Rajapov, CEO of the Correa's cafe chain, said that basic problems remain. "It is not getting easier," he said. "It is more like one step forward and two steps back."
Rajapov said the web sites would not bring much improvement as long as the authorities stuck to Soviet-era regulations. He said, for example, that it "takes ages" to open a simple bakery: "You need separate storage rooms for eggs and for flour, each equipped with lockable doors and a sink."
Rajapov added that, although e-Government and the bundling of information was a good idea, it wouldn't change bureaucrats' attitudes toward bribery. He said companies like his that refuse to pay kickbacks or bribes end up having to do more than what is legally required in order to stay out of trouble.
The result is simple: The time and effort devoted to meeting regulations eat away at resources. In the case of the bakery, Rajapov said, this makes it almost impossible to build a state-of-the-art facility.
Trying to get someone in the city government to comment for this article generated a good example of what people are up against. The central press department directed enquiries to the housing department, where a spokeswoman first promised to reply to faxed questions but later said the particular issue was outside her range of competence.
At a news conference earlier this month, Vladimir Yuzvikov, head of the city's department for administrative reform, said the single window system would be in place across the city by 2010.
Yuzvikov dismissed fears that the system would not help to speed up the bureaucratic process.
"The time it takes to obtain documents is regulated by the law," he said. Taking Rajapov's example, he said it should take 15 days to receive the documents required to open a bakery.
Valkov, the Bulgarian IT expert, said e-Government initiatives amounted only to first steps in a lengthy process. "They should be followed by other projects," he stressed.
He acknowledged that Internet penetration was still low in many regions, but said this did not reduce the benefits from e-Government.
"For such a vast country it is the best solution, especially as internet technology is getting cheaper and cheaper," Valkov said.
Unfortunately, he said, there was often much less money available outside of Moscow for the establishment of such programs, as many other regions lacked adequate resources.
David Fawkes, the British economist who heads the EU administrative reform project, said there were shortcomings in how the federal government explains administrative reforms to regional bureaucrats. "The communication of exact procedures ... is often poor," he said in a telephone interview.
He added that government ministries and agencies were having difficulties coming to agreement with each other on the creation of single window services. "Currently there is not one such agreement," he said.
But Fawkes also explained that similar difficulties had been encountered in Western Europe and that single window systems were only in place there in a few countries. "It sometimes takes years of negotiations," he said.
The most serious obstacle to achieving any meaningful change appears to be one of attitude. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, is skeptical that this is going to happen quickly, arguing that the problem is partly rooted in the country's political traditions.
"The Russian bureaucracy is not oriented toward efficiency but toward loyalty," Kryshtanovskaya said.
She said political and administrative elites traditionally focus their decisions on their superiors, while those in Western countries were more orientated toward the people. "The organization is still rooted in the nomenklatura system," she said, referring to the Communist Party hierarchical system that governed the Soviet Union.
A further twist, Kryshtanovskaya said, is that Russians traditionally look to the state as a strong institution rather than an efficient one.
"They expect the state to be a powerful commander instead of an efficient solver of problems," she said, adding that the idea was encapsulated in the popular saying "if they fear you, they respect you."
"The public interest has to be placed above the interest of government employees," he said.