Inside Russia: New Article in the NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy

Amid off-the-wall tensions between Russia and the US about Ukraine, George Borshchevskiy and I published a new open-access article 🙂 that sheds light on the politics-administration relationship inside the world’s largest country.

Jäkel, Tim and Borshchevskiy, George Alexander. "Leadership Discourses on Bureaucracy: Continuity over a Century" NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy, vol.14, no.2, 2021, pp.111-133. https://doi.org/10.2478/nispa-2021-0017

Politicians in all types of regimes require bureaucracy to extend their rule over society. To prevent administrators from becoming too powerful and publicly signal independence, they seemingly arbitrarily criticize public officials. But when and how do political leaders blame bureaucracy – and when do they praise it?

George and I use Russia as a case to illustrate the complex and ambiguous politics-administration relationship in non-Western regimes. We argue that public statements about bureaucracy accommodate two different legitimation strategies. We provide a content analysis of 311 public statements, from 1917 – 2017, on the role of administration in the country’s development.

Talking about public-sector reform in Russia is instrumental in gaining, maintaining, or extending power, in a broader context of elite struggle.

Have a look the latest issue of NISPAcee Journal of Public Administration and Policy to read how, over a century, the rhetoric of Russian leaders oscillated between blaming and praising bureaucracy to secure stability and overcome obstacles in implementing governing strategies. Here is the link to the article: https://doi.org/10.2478/nispa-2021-0017

Bureaucracy-bashing and strategies of blame-shifting are not unique to non-Western political regimes. The rhetoric of political leaders in Russia contains many things that political leaders in Western democracies do as well.


On doping and personnel management

Yesterday (2017-03-20) Ilya Akishin delivered an interesting talk at HSE’ School of Public Administration monthly Discussion meeting. Ilya is Deputy Director of the Institute for Public Administration and Governance / Center of Regional Programmes for Public Administration Improvement at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. https://ipag.hse.ru/en/

Ilya is not only a good researcher but he is also an excellent consultant. He has been counselling and advising about a dozen of Russian regions. 1. He developed models for regional development in the Far East, at Sakhalin. Just last week he returned from Tatarstan, where he advised government how to run and maintain a technological park. In Leningrad region he did extensive working time measurement to identify how many employees local civil service need to provide high quality public services. And the also conducted a project on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Sport. In his talk Ilya shared insights from his work on the staff size of public sport agencies in Russia.

Why do we talk about sport in a School of Public Administration? We do because society has a stake in healthy citizens. Do not get me wrong. Talking about public sport policy does not mean that I am advocating for nudging, vegetarian serfdom or other regulatory limitations of individual choice and freedom. It is an empirical fact that rich countries are facing problems of widespread obesity among citizens, especially among kids. Healthy behavior and it antipode directly link to the level public health care expenditures: Obesity among community members today means increasing expenditures to cure unhealthy lifestyle tomorrow. Accordingly public sport agencies administer a wide range of sport and recreation services (SRS), and health enhancing physical activities (HEPA).

But how many civil servants do we need to promote a healthy lifestyle? In his talk Ilya will present a management instrument to determine a satisficing or even optimal staff size.

The underlying research consists of three steps: desktop screening of all legislation in the sphere of sport yield a list of 100 functions for regional sport agencies. Sport agencies at the local level are responsible for another 66 functions. To get these jobs done 25 working processes do exist; while each function is clearly defined, processes may overlap in daily working routines.

Ilya and his team categorize 12 1st level functions, broad categories of daily operations conducted by the administrators within public sport agencies. 9 of them are policy related functions, and 3 categories cover administrative functions, from financial accounting over reporting to pure red-tape. (Recall OECD’s Classification of Function of government, COFOG; it is exactly the same logic.). Each 1st level functions captures dozens of more detailed 2nd and 3rd level activities. Examples of 1st level functions include sports-for-all development (1st level function 4); finance management (1st level function 11); general activities (1st level function 10).

In a second step Ilya and his colleagues conducted extensive field in the regions: How often functions are executed within one year? An average regional public sport agency in Russia has 45.5 civil servants. Field research reveals that more than 50 percent of overall working time (namely the working time of 33.8 civil servants) is spend on administrative functions, from accounting over reporting and various form of red-tape.

In a third step Ilya presented a formula to calculate an optimal staff size. Optimal staff size is a function of sporting objects, e.g. the number of sport clubs in a city, and legislative function. For a region with more than 2 million residents, optimal staff size varies from 54 to 64 civil servants; a region with 1-2 million residents should count between 27 and 32 administrators in its public sport agency; regions with less than 1 million inhabitants should employee between 21 and 29 civil servants.

Figure: Sports policy: Selected 1st level functions of regional sport agencies in Russia

Selected 1st level function of sports policy Optimal staff size
Development of relations with local sport clubs 1.4
Sports-for-all development 0.4
Finance management 17
General activities 13.6
Total staff size, units according to the model 79.2


According to the model an average public sport agency requires the capacity of 79.2 civil servants to carry out its 100 legislative functions.

A comparison of required staff size and actual staff size reveals that public sport agencies in most regions are understaffed. Public sport agencies in most Russian regions lack personnel resources to conduct all assigned functions in an efficient and effective manner. In Krasnodar region the actual staff size is 56, according to the model the workload requires 13 additional civil servants. In Sverdlovsk the gap between actual (48) and optimal staff size is 21 (additional 21 public officials are required); in the Republic of Mordovia the regional sport agency should count 29 instead of the current 11 civil servants.

The model provides an interesting management tool which links resource allocation to public service delivery. A striking example is the implementation of anti-doping regulations. Does doping occur more often in regions with understaffed public sport agencies? Anti-doping regulations do exist, but a lack of staffing may result in an inefficient control net.


Public Administration from a Scientific Point of View

For the latest issue of the magazine Re(a)d Square Yulia Kazakova, the journal’s editor in chief, and Saule Ismagulova asked me to share my views on Administrative Sciences and Public Administration in Russia. Yulia is also a graduate student at Higher Schools of Economics’ School of Public Administration. The interview can also be found at readsquare.ru/public-administration-from-a-scientific-point-of-view.


– Let’s begin with some questions about you. Do you have any experience of working in public administration?

I am a scientific researcher, not a public manager. I graduated from Heidelberg University with a PhD in political science. I’ve been studying decision-making in the public sector with a focus on governmental decisions, for instance, in labour market regulation. I have been fascinated by public economic approach to public administration since then. But often, in public economics as well as in political science, public administration is a black box- we don’t really want to know what is going on inside the box. After I finished my PhD I worked as a Research Fellow at the German Research Institute for Public Administration. And there I studied administrative processes more thoroughly. In essential feature of my research is to understand how public administration works, because otherwise you will build models that can hardly explain the reality.

Moscow Kremlin as seen from Arbat Square, Nov 2015, (c) Tim Jaekel

– Why did you become interested in public administration? What are the most attractive points for you about it?

Public sector is responsible for a large chunk of economic activities, about 30-50%, depending on the country. If we do not have an efficient, high-quality administration, we will have less well-being for citizens. This is the initial starting point: how can we manage bureaucratic processes more efficiently? And that’s one of my main subjects as a researcher. Public administration is relevant because it contributes to people’s well-being.

New Arbat Avenue with Moscow City looming, Nov 2015 (c) Tim Jaekel

– You have written articles and books where you analyzed public administration in different countries. It can be agreed that such researching process is a time-consuming activity. What does it represent and how is it usually organized?

First, you always have to come up with a good research question- that is to explain in one sentence what you are going to analyze in your research term paper, your PhD thesis or a journal article. That might sound simple, but it is hard work. The second step is to explain in two additional sentences why your topic is relevant at all. Researchers tend to ignore the question whether their activities are of any relevance for public practitioners or the general public. If it is not relevant, don’t write about it. The underlying hard work is to review the literature, develop a theoretical model and to look at processes in public sector management – waste management or public transportation, for instance. Because normally there’s no apple that falls on your head and make you think of Universal Law of Public Administration – there are just too few apple trees located on HSE campus. If you do a comparative research project a major point is case election. Here, you should ask yourself: Why do you want to compare certain countries? Why does this make sense? It’s time-consuming, but you have to conceive the research process from its ending – what do you want to achieve? And then it’s much easier to manage your research process.

Moscow, upper part of one of the „seven sisters“ skyscraper, this one hosting the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nov 2015 (c) Tim Jaekel

– Does an ideal model of public management exist? I mean whether you can give an example of some countries (regions or municipals) which, to your mind, can be characterized by high standards of public performance.

There is no “one size fits all model of public management. The main objective of public administration should be to contribute to citizens’ well-being. But people have different preferences. If you have children, you want to have playing fields, high-quality public schools. Safety, recreational areas and green environment are the things that most people consider important. Others want to have a say in budgetary issues, so municipalities have to balance expenditures and inflows. A lot of goals should be achieved, but these goals are always conflicting. There is a limited amount of resources, and public sector has to decide how to allocate them (for example, how much money should be spent on building new roads?). It’s a task of managing an allocation process. A good public administration is the one which at least tries to maximize as many goals as possible and keep the side effects limited. That’s a challenging process because resources are always limited. If they try successfully, they are a good public administration. But there are different models that can succeed.

Moscow, Metro station Arbatskaya, Nov 2015 (c) Tim Jaekel

Sweden and Switzerland are two fantastic cases for researchers. In Switzerland there is a wide range of direct democracy at all layers of government. If the municipalities want to raise their local income tax rate, they have to call people to the ballot box. This creates consensus, and at the same limits inefficiencies in the public sector.

Moscow, Nov 2015 (c) Tim Jaekel

Sweden has an outstanding tradition of performance measurement and performance evaluation in the public sector. And they particular focus on the quality of public service delivery, and they made large steps to go beyond the common and flawed cost-per unit approach we saw in the 1990ies as part of the New Public Management doctrine. They established the notion that citizens and taxpayers have a right to receive the best quality of public services. This is why I like to do research on Sweden.


– What is special about Russian public administration? Does it have definite peculiarities that differ it from that in other countries? Can you give some examples of its advantages and drawbacks?

The strength of Russian people is that they are able to adapt to any circumstances. I see that in Moscow the city government is willing to adopt new practices. There are a lot of things changing in everyday life: new time tables and public transportation, which are better compared to the old ones. The city government is open-minded, willing to try new things. A drawback of Russian public administration can be given from everyday life experience. Sometimes frontline staff is unfriendly – or let us say – rude. If you go to a public museum and ask a staff member where is this and that, they might look at you in a way like ‘what do you want from me?’ Another potential drawback is that too strict hierarchical thinking limits the opportunities offered by thinking and doing things differently. But these are just some examples. Russia is an extremely multifaceted country.

Moscow Nov 2015 (c) Tim Jaekel

– They say that innovations are becoming a significant part of the successful public service performance. What innovations have been introduced in the practice of public service in the last several years? Does innovative public management have limits?

Firstly, E-government is a large trend in innovative behavior. To deliver more public services online is a common trend in the US, in England or Germany alike. Another innovation is the adoption of citizens’ service centres and one-stop agencies. The relevant question is why some public organizations innovate while others do not. Prior research found for instance that innovative organizations staff includes externally hired professionals, and that the organization offers knowledge and skill training which in turn increases encouragement on innovative behavior. But we have limited evidence on how policy-choices from other organizations affect decision making. In my own research I for instance analyze how the performance of an organization and strategic interaction among jurisdictions contribute to innovative behavior in Public Administration.


– It’s not surprising that when local public servants give an account to higher organs, they can embellish their reports with more positive results of their work. What do you think: why do they prefer telling about positive things rather than problems and how can this gap in local public sector be solved?

This is kind of human behavior: everybody wants to be successful and achieve goals- I do not know anybody who wants to showcase his own failure. But this is not reasonable for any modern public sector organization. You have to communicate shortfalls and the underlying reasons properly. Organizations have to find a balance between reporting the very last digit of available performance data – open data do not has be a fetish but a tool for holding bureaucrats to account – and reasonable non-disclosure. To identify potential performance gaps and the underlying reasons is important for improvement. From interviews with practitioners in different countries I found that most of them will only share their experiences and knowledge behind closed doors with peers they consider to be trustworthy. An organization thus has to establish a culture of internal trust, a positive culture of error tolerance and channels for knowledge transfer without any fears of being blamed – but this is different from merely sweeping things under the carpet.

Pictured: Moscow, Residence of an Embassador (bottom left), and Appartment complex that looks like an open book (located in Kompozitorskaya ul.)

– At HSE day you gave the lecture called «Blame games and risk avoidance: how decision making is linked to relative performance and potential peer effects». Please, share your impressions about the lecture.

I enjoyed delivering the Lecture in Gorky Park very much. Russian students are respectful to teachers and interested in learning new things. At the same time they are also keen to try out new things. If they want to solve a problem, they’ll find a way to do it. This is a good combination.

Pictured: Moscow, Khram Spasa Preobrazheniya Gospodnya na Peskakh, Nov 2015 (c) Tim Jaekel

– Which qualities and skills should a rational public manager possess, to your mind?

A modern public manager hates blind obedience; she is keen to deviate from the ‘good old tradition’ for the sake of citizen’s well-being. She is sensitive to performance gaps, that is, she intends to maintain an acceptable level of performance, or to improve performance. She is used to learn and to share knowledge with her peers in other jurisdictions. Finally she is open-minded, and highly motivated.

Thank you for the interview!

Picured: Head of one of the seven sisters skyscrapers, this one located at Smolenskiy Chausee, Nov 2015 (c) Tim Jaekel