The Open Government Project: an Attempt to Improve the Russian Economy

The Open Government is not meant to aid dialogue between the authorities and the people. It provides for dialogue of a limited number of experts with the government. But this is not a stick. We have only one stick in the country and that is Vladimir Putin. interview with Georgy Bovt, editor-in-chief of Russkiy magazine.

What role can the Open Government play in the current political system? Was the decision to create it politically motivated?

The Open Government project was prompted by the entirely sincere considerations of its members and initiators, including Dmitry Medvedev himself, and is designed to improve the economy. I personally know several people who have joined it out of the very best altruistic motives. That said, it is not yet an effective body. It can’t even be called a body because it is a kind of a supplement to the real government and is acting as an expert council.

This project is an attempt to replace the broken parliament and overcome the gap between government and the people. It was prompted by the inadequate feedback between the government on the one hand, and the economy, the business community and voters, on the other…

For the time being, the Open Government has not done anything special. It would be nice to see any results of its work, at least in the field of easing bureaucratic procedures. As I see it, the primary aim of the Open Government is essentially technocratic, but to be honest, we haven’t yet seen any results of its work. It’s hard for me to say what it will become of this body. Its members have noble intentions, but I don’t yet see any effective ways of translating these intentions into reality. It is possible to imagine a top-down way of doing this, but I don’t think we should expect this from the leaders of the Open Government due to numerous political restrictions.

Can Medvedev’s statements be viewed as a guarantee that the government has serious intentions? Does he run any risks by tying himself to this initiative?

He isn’t risking anything in his current position. He refused to run for a second term as president, and that’s why he is trying to act like a technocratic prime minister. Somehow everyone forgets that Medvedev is the leader of the United Russia party. He goes out of his way to avoid acting like its leader and does not use the party to position himself, showing indifference to its numerous public initiatives. He’s trying to play the role of a technocrat and, to an extent, repeat his achievements of five years ago, when he oversaw national projects as first deputy prime minister. I must say, he achieved certain positive results in this role. Will he succeed now? Perhaps he will, but it’s too early to make any predictions.

Economist Sergei Aleksashenko believes that the authorities have established the Open Government as a kind of “big stick.” Are Russian citizens ready for dialogue with the government?

The Open Government is not meant to aid dialogue between the authorities and the people. It provides for dialogue of a limited number of experts with the government. Of course, experts also represent the people to an extent and may surprise government members with their knowledge of how things really work. But this is not a stick. We have only one stick in the country and that is Vladimir Putin. He holds the necessary political will, and the political system is designed to give him the final say on practically everything. He can listen to the Open Government or ignore it.

What mechanisms can the Open Government use to take public opinion into consideration?

There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. There is the parliament and parliamentary procedures, such as holding hearings, adopting bills, inviting ministers for open hours, conducting its own investigations and the like. There is a more or less active parliamentary opposition. At one time, the Public Chamber was institute and it has put forward some legislative initiatives.

In effect, the Open Government is the second Public Chamber. It cannot replace an effective parliament or, most important, an effective judicial system, which we clearly do not possess. I think the latter is the biggest problem in the Russian public and political system; it is a critical problem. The Open Government does not resolve any of these problems. Dialogue with experts is useful for both sides – the prime minister and his cabinet members learn something new about the real performance of the economy but this cannot resolve the problems of this economy. It can only produce individual technocratic amendments to various bureaucratic procedures. The potential impact is limited and I still haven’t seen it yet.

The first initiative of the Open Government is HR reform. It suggests replacing the current 260 criteria for assessing the performance of governors with just 12 yardsticks. Is the current system effective? What effect do these assessments have?

Clearly, 12 criteria are better than 200. On the other hand, when Medvedev was wrapping up his term as president, he dismissed about 30 governors. They lost their positions not because they did not fit these 200 criteria. At any rate, nobody said publically that these 30 governors lost their jobs for this reason. It would be great if they said what these 12 yardsticks were and showed how the performance of the governors measures up, and then published these results along with their ratings, and the worst 12 out of 83 governors have to go. But I don’t think our current political system is ready for something like this. If electability isn’t going to be a criterion, we can try these 12.

But gubernatorial elections are coming back. Perhaps this will become the best measure of effectiveness?

Let’s wait till the fall to see how the elections will work. We shouldn’t have any illusions – we shouldn’t think the voters will learn how to make good choices in elections by next fall even if objectionable candidates aren’t disqualified and there are no administrative restrictions or filters. Perhaps the voters will make a mistake and elect objectionable populists, but the point is that they must be able to look at their mistakes and correct them. We haven’t elected regional governors except for a short period in the early 1990s. In some regions elections have produced good results but not in others. If elections had not been revoked in 1993 we might have learned something by now, but today we’ll have to start from scratch.

Mikhail Gruzdev, the governor of the Tula Region, which was chosen as a pilot site for the project, noted that regions must compete with each other. Can you imagine regions competing not only for the federal funding but also for their residents – taxpayers and voters?

The idea as such is good. It requires some effort at the federal level to ensure that this preference is objective. Now the overwhelming majority of regions are apparently receiving federal aid, although the trouble is that they have very little power to administer their own budget revenues instead of funds bestowed by the federal government under the current system of redistributing budget revenues and expenses. We must start at the municipal level, which has the least rights as regards taxes and the tax base, and move upwards from there. If we build this pyramid from bottom up, this competition will be possible. But we must first give up the institution of registration, ensure the enforcement of federal laws throughout the country and many other things.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.