“Good public administration always matters for people’s well-being” - Florian Hauser


 

 

Interview with Florian Hauser, team leader of the Centre of Thematic Expertise on Public Administration Reform, at the European Commission's Directorate General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations.


Summary

There is growing awareness of the need for good administration, or good governance more broadly, also among EU institutions and Member States. The quality of public administration varies significantly among the 27 members. We've decided to talk about the quality and capacity of public administration with Florian Hauser, who is researching this topic at the European Commission. The interview focuses on the topic of good public administration. It underlines the current state of public administration quality in the EU and experiences with public administration reform in the EU and its neighbourhood. It is believed that there exists a correlation between government effectiveness and country competitiveness and it will be claimed in this interview that improvement of public administration is a basic requirement for successful accession to the EU. The readers will find out more about key public administration reforms on the agenda in different EU Member states, as well as about minimum requirements that are to define a good administration in all countries.

 

Why does good public administration matter in the EU context?

Good public administration has always mattered for the well-being of people. A country’s citizens feel it directly when government officials try to address their needs and treat them fairly, when they receive valuable public services, or when the government devises appropriate policies and useful regulations that balance the interests of all parties, enabling business and protecting society.

We live in turbulent times. Governments need to be able to operate quickly and competently, and they need to communicate transparently, while managing both existing and emerging challenges, such as pandemics, climate change, demographic and technological risks—and opportunities.

Simply put, we have a lot of evidence of a direct correlation between the quality of governance and the policy performance of a country.[1] Government effectiveness and a country's competitiveness[2] also correlate strongly. So, a good administration is an important foundation for achieving the EU’s economic, social and environmental objectives.

 

What do you mean by “quality of public administration”?

 Public administration is not an exact science. Expectations of the role and quality of the government can differ from country to country. However, we’ve identified some minimum requirements that are likely to define a good administration in all countries. These include: good policy planning and coordination; a professional and modern civil service and good people management; transparency and accountability; quality services; and smart, responsible management of public finances. We’ve also developed a framework called the “Principles of Public Administration” through the EU-OECD SIGMA programme,[3] which reflects these aspects. In addition, we encourage public authorities to develop an innovative mindset.  

Many countries have asked us about the Commission’s interpretation of quality of public administration. In response, we put together an EU Quality of Public Administration Toolbox[4] to answer this question and to meet the demand for examples of good practice. The Toolbox is a compendium that explains principles and practices, and provides guidelines and examples for how to build a better administration. The Toolbox has really been instrumental in answering this question. Have a look at the Toolbox on the internet. I recommend it. It’s been downloaded many thousands of times, so I guess people are finding it useful.

 

Is improving public administration mainly an issue in the EU's Neighbourhood?

We indeed work closely with countries in the EU Neighbourhood to support public administration reforms. For countries that want to join the EU, improving public administration is now a basic requirement for successful accession. At the same time, there is growing awareness of the need for good administration, or good governance more broadly, also among EU institutions and Member States. The quality of public administration varies significantly among the 27 members. While some countries need to catch up on some of the basic principles I mentioned, even the better performers need to keep reflecting and improving, simply to keep up with changing challenges and demands.

 

How does the EU encourage and support Member States in their reform efforts?

The EU engages and supports Member States on public administration reform in so many ways that it’s difficult to list everything in detail. Let me give a few examples. I have already mentioned the guidance provided by the Toolbox, which is a good starting point.

The current EU funding period supported investment in better administration predominantly via the European Social Fund. Don’t forget that Member States can spend money on this until 2023.

Setting up the Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service, which has now become the Directorate General for Reform Support,[5] has been a milestone for delivering demand-based technical support to Member States to strengthen their reform efforts. DG REFORM support is very popular. During 2019’s call for reform proposals, 27 Member States submitted more than 700 requests for public administration and policy reforms, some 20% of which directly concern reforms of public administration at the central and local levels.

Looking ahead, the newly established Recovery and Resilience Facility[6] will provide a lot of funding for reforms and related investments in many policy areas, including core public administration. Member States’ reform efforts should focus on the needs and recommendations the Commission made during its regular country analysis, the process known as the European Semester.[7]

 

What are some key public administration reforms that Member States are now undertaking?

I could write a book about this, as it’s not something easily answered in a few paragraphs. But let me try to highlight some good examples: many administrations in Europe are increasingly “ageing.” For example in Ireland, Germany and Italy more than 20% of the current cohort of civil servants is expected to retire over the next decade. So, there will be a generational change. This makes being an attractive employer and appealing to young talent an important issue. After all, the quality of people matters for the success of any organisation. Public administration often had a dusty, old-fashioned image. This could be less interesting for young people.

The challenge for the civil service in many countries is to become less hierarchical, more team-oriented, less transactional, and more focussed on making a positive societal impact. With this in mind, Ireland, as one example, is currently undertaking an interesting reform called “Our Public Service 2020.”[8] Meanwhile, the Netherlands has published its strategic government human resources policy through 2025 called “Working for the public good,” with a focus on better services, flexible employment, and diversity.[9]

A very hot topic and reform priority for most countries is obviously e-government, and digitalisation more generally. Some countries, like Estonia, are already very advanced, while other countries, including Germany, are struggling to progress. Digitalisation is a big disruptor for the way public administration operates. This will be mostly for the better, but there are also risks. Above all, it’s not about just “digitising the bureaucracy.”

Another interesting development that I want to point out could be labelled “governance as a platform.” Many societal challenges increasingly tend to cut across several policy areas or sectors. This means that effective coordination, breaking administrative silos, learning and knowledge transfer matter. Poland, for example, has started an interesting cross-sectoral governance platform for the management of the Sustainable Development Goals in this regard. Similarly, Czechia is developing a knowledge platform for smart cities development. Both projects are getting technical support from DG REFORM.

 

Besides the Member States, what about the quality of public administration at the regional and local levels?

The quality of public administration and capacity matters at all administrative levels—national, regional and local. And it also matters how these administrative levels coordinate and collaborate. It needs to be clear who does what and on what level. Functions cannot overlap. Responsibilities, capacities and resources to fulfil the responsibilities need to be balanced. We refer to these elements as effective state structures or “multi-level governance.” While the EU has many programmes that directly support local government, the Commission has limited capacity to work directly and systematically with all municipalities. Mostly, the Commission's counterparts are at the national level, and we rely on them to ensure adequate support for public administration at the local level. We also support some substantial multi-level governance reform projects, U-LEAD with Europe being the best example.

 

Can you share some lessons from your experience with public administration reform in the EU and its neighbourhood?

Yes, there are many lessons [laughs]. As I said in the beginning, public administration reform is not an exact science. We sometimes underestimate how much people and culture matter in any reform. Sometimes, we think that we can control or measure everything—even though monitoring and measuring are very important! Sometimes we risk taking an overly technocratic approach to managing organisational change. Maybe we need to think more about drivers, windows of opportunity, and obstacles to reform. To make reforms sustainable, reform approaches need to consider the political context, people’s concerns, and the potential winners and losers of any reform.

Another important element is also the time it takes to design and implement reforms, which is also asynchronous with the time of modern politics. We need to listen carefully, help people make sense of it all, and come to a joint vision that is based on positive values. All this is not so easy to grasp and to manage. However, it can help avoiding the risk that reforms are just on paper or a mere box-ticking exercise.

 

Interviewed by Andrej Horvat, GIZ Deputy Programme Director of the U-LEAD with Europe
Kyiv-Brussel, November 2020


Florian Hauser has participated at the International Expert Exchange 2019, "Empowering Municipalities. Building resilient and sustainable local self-government". His Keynote Speech delivered during the conference on the topic "Structural Reforms in Member States of the EU – Role of the European Commission" is to a great extent depicted in this interview. In the name of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme, we would like to express our great appreciation and thanks for both inputs of Mr Hauser. The interview was taken in November 2020 and will be included in future online publication Compendium of Articles.

Compendium of Articles is a collection of papers prepared by policymakers, Ukrainian and international experts, and academia after International Expert Exchange 2019 and 2020, organized by U-LEAD with Europe Programme. The articles raise questions in the field of regional and local development, relevant for both the Ukrainian and the international audience. The Compendium will be published online in Ukrainian and English languages on the U-LEAD online recourses. Please, follow us on Facebook to stay informed about the project.   

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