What is reform? It’s not an adopted legislation or a governmental act. It’s not a successful public procurement, or even a finished task. Reform means changes that positively impact citizens. Why weren’t reforms implemented in many of the previous opportunities? Unfortunately, the answer is simple: a lack of responsibility to finish what was started.
This is best illustrated in the case of police reform. The patrol service reform showed results. The citizens saw improved security and increased trust in the police. However, a democratic façade cannot survive for long. No further steps were taken to reform criminal justice, financial inspection, or cyber police. The overall result has been disappointing.
Another stark example is decentralization. This is one of the few reforms that was successful. After all, citizens especially feel the practical implications.
The local self-government reform created 413 new united territorial communities and gave them resources and authority. It helped implement hundreds of projects, create dozens of convenient public service centers, and build thousands of kilometers of new roads; it eliminated waiting lists at new kindergartens and improved education in upgraded schools. This reform has demonstrated progress and helped restore public trust in government.
At the same time, decentralization seems to be the only reform where the implementation has preceded the adoption of the legislation. This February, the Ukrainian parliament succeeded in adopting a package of decentralization laws, including a bill on the voluntary unification of territorial communities. Today, nearly 200 territorial communities have seized the opportunity to join united territorial communities.
The parliament also approved a new law on public service at the local government level. The issue of the authority of the chiefs in settlements has been resolved. And legal impediments on the conduct and scheduling of community elections in cities of regional significance or in different districts have been removed.
Still, the adopted laws are only part of the steps needed to successfully continue the reform. What should be done so that the local self-government reform will not wither like the police reform?
First, local self-government bodies need public service professionals. The bill on public service in the local self-government bodies was vetoed by the President. However, the specialist committee sent a revised bill to parliament for reconsideration.
The bill creates opportunities to attract new professional civil servants to local self-government, with the goal to improve efficiency in public administration. Resources, authority, and personnel are the success formula for governance. That is why the parliament should pass a law “On Service in Local Self-Government Bodies.”
Another challenge is the funding of the united territorial communities. The bill gave the right to form united territorial communities and join pre-established ones. However, the law will be ineffective without resolving funding. The bill “On Amendments to the Budget Code of Ukraine” (regarding voluntary unification of territorial communities) provides funding and an opportunity for newly established communities to enjoy the direct inter-budgetary relations with the national budget.
It is imperative to recognize cities of regional significance as capable communities—they are the centers for economic growth. Cities have close economic, social (especially healthcare sector), and political ties with the surrounding communities.
Today, however, Ukraine’s parliament doesn’t allow the surrounding communities to join the cities. This error should be corrected. And the identical legal framework for unification of the territorial communities with united territorial communities and cities of regional significance should be set up. The bill “On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine ‘On Voluntary Unification of Territorial Communities'” (regarding voluntary unification between territorial village and settlement communities and territorial communities of cities of regional significance) allows to do so.
To make changes in the local self-government irreversible, district reform also must be enacted.
Currently, six districts are covered by united territorial communities and cities of regional significance. Thus, districts have no common interest representation. However, parallel management structures, such as the district council and district state administration, which do not exercise any of the functions, continue to exist. In addition, fifteen districts with only 5,000 people were not part of the united territorial communities.
In such an environment, the government is engaged in wasteful spending for the upkeep of the district-level state administrative apparatus. It spends about UAH 150 mn ($5.8 mn) on 21 district state administrations that are no longer involved in the operation of management responsibilities.
The adaptation of the bill “On the Order of Formation, Dissolution, Setting, and Alteration of District Boundaries” will begin to address this matter.
There is also an urgent need to resolve the issue of developing documents for spatial planning of the united territorial communities. Today the united territorial community may include from five to fifty settlements. The current legislation doesn’t include developing and approving the joint general plan of settlements. Therefore, it is critical to consider the bill “On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On Regulation of Urban Planning Activity.”
All these bills are awaiting consideration and the parliament’s approval this week. If officials have the political will, the local self-government reform will finally get a chance to break the vicious cycle and be successful.