The presidential election campaign has somewhat eclipsed other important processes in the state. Meanwhile, on April 1 it is the fifth anniversary of the beginning of decentralization in Ukraine. This reform is called one of the most successful; however, it is accompanied by a barrage of criticism. Opinion asked Vyacheslav Nehoda, First Deputy Minister of Regional Development, Construction, and Utilities of Ukraine for clarification.
Mr. Vyacheslav, the starting point of decentralization is the order of the Cabinet of Ministers from April 1, 2014 “On approval of the Concept of reforming local self-government and the territorial organization of authorities in Ukraine”. What has been done during these 5 years?
The first results of the reform even exceeded expectations. Despite the enormous resistance of the enemies and skeptics’ assessments, it became the most effective long before its completion. We will be able to make a final assessment when we are able to fully accomplish the tasks that were set. What has been done since the start of the reform? In short, something that no one has ever done in Ukraine. Even international partners admit that the Ukrainian case of decentralization can be one of the most successful in Europe.
The concept you mentioned clearly outlined the problems that the reform must solve. For example, this is excessive fragmentation of territorial communities, and as a result, the inability to fully fulfill the powers of local governments. Imagine a society where 50, 100 or 200 people live, mostly elderly people, young people left because there is no work. The budgets of a large part of the local government were deeply subsidized and funds were used mostly for the salary of the local council apparatus. How to repair worn out infrastructure, provide high-quality social services, ensure sustainable development of communities? And the local managerial level left a lot to be desired. What to do? Leave everything as it is, as some politicians shouted that the reform is killing the village? Of course not. It would be better if the reform was carried out immediately after the restoration of Ukraine’s independence, but this did not happen, the problems were only accumulating. A huge step forward was the harmonious position of all branches of government ‒ the President, the Government, and the Parliament, on the need to introduce reform of local self-government and the territorial organization of power and decentralization of power and resources. Therefore, the results are good.
The first step in the implementation of the Concept was fiscal decentralization. Local budgets increased from 68.6 billion UAH in 2014 to 234 billion UAH in 2018 ‒ 3.5 times! Excluding transfers. A huge resource has opened up opportunities for local governments to take care of the development of territories and not to walk around ministries and administrations with a stretched hand. And then there was a question of the effective and responsible management of such a resource. Let us return to a society, where 100 people live: can the local council apparatus manage the budget, for example, in the amount of 10 million, education, medicine, and the social sphere? First, you need to be able to form a budget, not to mention the need to prepare high-quality projects and development programs. Such communities did not have the proper ability and could not work effectively, because all their experience was mainly issuing certificates.
Therefore, the Government began the process of municipal consolidation ‒ the formation of competent communities based on the law on the voluntary association of territorial communities. But it is not enough to adopt a law, it is necessary that it be implemented. And for this we need to explain both local Government and residents of communities, why this reform is needed, why we should create united communities and what advantages such communities will receive. It is important that people understand the essence of the reform. Because their support and informed decisions about the union depended on it. Therefore, in each region, with the support of international donor organizations, we have created special units. At first, these were reform offices, then they were transformed into centers of local government development ‒ such a network of experts, specialists in the fields of finance, local government, spatial development, and others. They visit communities, conduct explanatory work, and provide expert assistance on all the procedures for uniting into communities. And the process has begun. More than 4 thousand of Local Councils united in 884 territorial communities with greater powers and resources for their implementation.
In addition to finance, the state transfers agricultural land to the level of competent communities. Already 646 UTC received 1,450.8 thousand hectares of such land in communal ownership, and this process will continue. It is also a powerful resource for the development of their territories.
The reform has denied all the rumors that decentralization will destroy the village, close schools and medical and obstetric point, people will have to travel tens of kilometers according to various rumors. If somewhere few schools were closed, it was only because there were several students in a class there, and in such conditions, they could not receive a competitive education. Instead of that a new educational space is being formed, providing schools with modern technical support and qualified personnel. Teachers have the opportunity to improve their qualifications, receive a bigger salary and comfortable working conditions. Pupils, in addition to properly furnished classes and modern educational equipment, have the opportunity to engage in various clubs, which in small villages almost never existed. They attend such schools with more pleasure, and, of course, receive a quality education. Since 2016, 778 support schools have been created, with about 1,300 branches. 331 supporting schools were created in united communities.
According to the program of the President of Ukraine for the development of rural medicine, a competent network of primary medical care in rural areas is precisely calculated ‒ 4,223 clinics, and more than five hundred are new ones. About 30 such clinics have already been commissioned. By June, another 382 will be opened. Telemedicine services are being introduced in rural areas, through which the family doctor can contact one or another doctor in district or region and consult. The state buys service cars for rural ambulant clinics.
As for certificates, firstly, they are issued by the head of the village. Secondly, modern Administrative Services Provision Centers are being created in the communities, plus they provide remote workstations for administrators throughout the community or implement the so-called mobile ASPC. 125 such centers have been created in the united communities. This year at least another hundred are planned to be constructed. Communities are supported by the “U-LEAD with Europe” program. During the implementation of the reform, no one complained about problems with the issuance of certificates. On the contrary, with the help of ASPC, it was possible not only to bring services closer (when they thought that even a passport could be ordered and received in their village or town, without traveling to a district or regional center for travel documents?), but also to significantly improve the quality of such services.
What could not be done and why?
If something immediately failed, then this is a temporary phenomenon. In the end, reform is not yet completed. Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman initiated a new phase of decentralization. His firm position is that it must become irreversible, the formation of competent communities and the transfer of powers and resources to them should be completed no later than mid-2020. This is necessary to ensure that all the people, who live in villages and towns take advantage of the benefits of decentralization so that they have the same opportunities for self-realization and comfortable living conditions.
Therefore, there is a lot of work ahead. It is necessary to approve a new territorial basis for the activities of the authorities at the community and district levels. We must complete the transfer of executive authority to local governments. It is necessary to clearly delineate the powers between the various levels of government and local government. Among the tasks for the near future is to ensure the proportionality of the volume of financial resources to new powers of local self-government and to standardize the share of funds available for sectoral delegated powers. The new stage of decentralization implies bringing the service system in local governments in accordance with modern standards. It is also necessary to distinguish between positions of employees of local self-government and elected officials. And, of course, they must ensure an increase in the level of professional competence of local government employees.
Based on the fact that effective local self-government rests on three pillars ‒ powers, resources, and responsibility, we must take another important step ‒ to introduce a unified state policy of supervision and control over the legality of the activities of officials and local governments, as suggested by the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the Constitution of Ukraine. The experience of united communities clearly demonstrates that we have to improve the system of elections to councils of communities, district and regional councils, and elections of headmen. Residents of settlements seek proportional representation in the councils of united communities, and those, in turn, in district and regional councils.
The Parliament has not yet adopted several key laws. In particular, on the principles of administrative-territorial structure and changes to the Law on the Regulation of Urban Planning Activities (regarding the right of the territorial community to plan its entire territory). What is the cause of the delay?
The reform cannot move without the necessary legislative framework. There are even more bills that are pending adoption by the Parliament. Many are in the process of preparation. But decentralization has always had high support among the deputies of this convocation. The results of the reform, which are mentioned, are also the merit of the Verkhovna Rada. I also want the laws to pass faster, but the country lives not only by decentralization alone.
How is the process of UTC formation going: dynamics, trends, and statistics?
It slightly slowed down. I am talking about 2018. On the one hand, this is the expected situation with the approach of the next local elections in 2020. On the other hand, the previous composition of the CEC periodically arranged “surprises”, which blocked the announcement of the first elections in the UTC. And martial law, introduced through the aggression of the Russian Federation, made it impossible to hold elections in 45 UTC last year. Elections took place only in 77 UTC, instead of 123, as suggested by the CEC decision. Separate regional state administrations also blocked the presentation of the conclusions on the creation of UTC and sending relevant submissions to the CEC, not accepting promising plans and changes, in which there is a considerable merit of regional councils, part of district administrations that were mobilized against decentralization. These and other factors did not give confidence in support from the regional authorities, the CEC to the communities that wanted to unite. But if we compare, first,159 UTC were created in 2015, a year later ‒ another 207, in 2017 ‒ 299 UTC. In total, I recall, 884 UTC have been created, of which 78 are awaiting the CEC decision on the appointment of the first local elections.
Those, who really wanted to unite in a community on a voluntary basis, did it a long time ago. There are those, who wish to unite or join the already existing united communities or cities of regional importance but encounters resistance from those, who do not see their interests in such a union.
The upcoming elections do not contribute to the formation of new UTC. In the end, no one said that it would be easy to implement reform. Anyway, the next local elections will be held in 2020 on the new territorial basis of the communities. This means that from January 1, 2021, the entire population of Ukraine will live in competent communities. Obviously, those communities that will not unite until then on a voluntary basis will be formed in an administrative way, because the reform cannot last forever. Moreover, the state is obliged to create equal conditions for development for all. People are already asking why they built a road in the neighboring community, opened the ASPC office, bought communal equipment, and we all have no changes? Not a single UTC has yet been created in 96 districts and practically nothing changes for the better. But it is so for now. People want change, and if someone in the place is in no hurry to implement them, trying to keep a position for oneself, then the law should soon correct this situation.
The Ministry of Regional Development, Construction and Housing and Communal Services of Ukraine monitors the process of decentralization and reforming of local self-government on a monthly basis. Still, the reform process continues. In places, the opportunities and prospects for creating new competent communities are still being considered. According to the results of sociological research, conducted in 2018 with the support of the Council of Europe’s program “Decentralization and Territorial Consolidation in Ukraine”, 58% of the country’s population, compared with 19% in 2015, believes that local government reform is needed. And 61% of UTC residents noted an improvement in the quality of services in the communities.
Can the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in 2019, and with them the possible reformatting of power, affect the further course of decentralization?
The result of any democratic election will be the partial or substantial reformatting in the Government. It is very important to continue the reform of decentralization and achieve the goals set by the Government, formulated in the Concept and in subsequent decisions of the Government and the President of Ukraine.
Is it possible to take everything back and take resources and powers away from communities and local governments? Unfortunately, yes, by changing the law. And in our recent history, this has already happened when a large-scale centralization gradually took place, which made it possible to enslave local self-government and keep it obedient. To avoid this, the achievement of decentralization must be enshrined in the Constitution. This is not done with the magic wand. It requires a lot of time, effort and coordinated work of all branches of Government. But I am far from thinking that the Ukrainian people will allow someone to curtail the decentralization.
Views on the decentralization of experts and those, who embody it in places, are coming on Opinion.
By Viktor Tsvilikhovsky