All heroes have a past. The modern, resilient Ukraine successfully fending off Russia’s aggression would not have been possible without the 2014 awakening of civil society, known as the Revolution of Dignity, which followed years of corrupt governance.
Europe has been a crucial enabler of this awakening. Since signing its Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) in 2017, Ukraine has launched important reforms with the bloc’s help. Not all have been fully implemented, but some elements of the country’s governance have been transformed and that has helped change ordinary people’s lives.
Municipalities and local communities have more autonomy and resources to develop, post-Soviet police structures have been reformed, and land ownership laws introduced — though safeguards against market-crippling corporate control are not yet fully in place.
Perhaps most importantly, active and talented individuals from civil society, academia, and the private sector have finally come to believe there was a place for them in steering their country forward and committed themselves to political bodies or public administration.
These people generated what is known as the startup mindset among Ukrainian reformists. They asked why they should wait to accomplish a wholesale transformation of public bodies and the civil service when they could approach problems one by one, offer swift solutions, and make services transparent and user-friendly, thus increasing people’s faith in the country and reducing the risk of corruption.
This is how some of Ukraine’s cutting-edge public administration solutions were born – the public procurement website Prozorro, the e-governance tool, and mobile app Diia, which gives citizens digital access to public services, and more recently, the Digital Restoration Ecosystem for Accountable Management (DREAM).
Ambitious e-governance and digital services projects have become the hallmark of a Ukrainian government partnered with civil society. But such innovations cannot substitute for the meticulous, system-wide reforms of public administration that are still waiting.
In today’s Ukraine, the quality of governance differs depending on which institutions are involved. Local government in the regions sometimes suffers low policymaking capacity, for example, which may affect its ability to implement multi-million-euro recovery programs.
The EU, as the main donor for Ukraine’s reforms, is aware of this. For years, it has funded large-scale public administration projects, such as the Ukraine Reforms Architecture, which have led to important changes but are now held back in part by a shift to wartime priorities.
Since the full-scale invasion in 2022, the Ukrainian government has moved the focus of reform teams to ad-hoc assignments. Europe understands this change in focus and is not insisting that all reforms meet earlier goals, even though some experts believe this easing of targets is a mistake.
The European institutions’ assessment of Ukraine’s progress has meanwhile failed to focus on another great challenge— the systemic reform of public administration as the key foundation of state performance.
Ukrainian civil servants are often underpaid, and not all government bodies have open and competitive recruitment and management systems. The development of an independent, professional, and accountable central civil service, while also building capacity in the regions, cannot be achieved without a long-term, systemic approach. To achieve this, some ideas for reform will need to be picked up from where they were dropped when the war began.
The transition from a startup mentality to a lean but capable civil service embedded in all government and regional institutions should be central to Ukraine’s reforms. As the most important partner, the EU should innovate its approach to support this.
EU accession should go hand in hand with transparent recruitment and management, increased civil service salaries and the launch of a nationwide public administration capacity-building program in the regions to boost executive competence. Success in this area is essential to ensure Ukraine does not lose the peace after it wins the war.
Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.