Ana Brnabić, Serbia’s new Minister of State Administration and Local Self-Government, is confronted by major challenges, from the establishment of the Academy of Public Administration, the implementation of the Law on Administrative Procedure, implementation of the Law on Inspection Oversight, amendments to the Law on Local Self-Government, to the implementing of a transparent system for financing local government, a system of work , personnel structure and a way of financing and reducing the administration.
In one of your first statements for the press, you said that you have your top list of 15 priorities. What’s on it?
It is of essential importance for the commenced changes to be implemented properly and at full capacity. When I talk about administrative reform, I am primarily referring to a change of the relations between the government and public officials towards citizens and the economy; we are awaited by education in order for public servants to do their job better and provide a service to users, and for citizens in terms of learning about the rights that they have and how they can take advantage of these rights. To have continuous and professional training of the state administration, it is essential for us to establish the Academy of Public Administration, which will be a national academy for professional training in public administration, and this is undoubtedly one of the priorities. Another major priority is the full implementation of the Law on General Administrative Procedures, which is a reform law per excellence and will significantly ease the daily lives of people. In addition to that, we are awaited by changes in the working methods of inspections, connecting in a single system all the relevant services and working to improve the safety of operations through the implementation of the Law on Inspection Oversight. All of this also falls under the umbrella of the development of eGovernment and providing as many electronic services as possible to citizens and businesses. On my list of priorities are also amendments to the Law on Local Self-Government and finding the right key for the division of competences between State and local authorities, as well as greater inter-municipal cooperation. We must also find a sustainable and transparent way to finance local government, and this reform has not been completed with new amendments to the Law on the Financing of Local Government. It needs to be in step with the initiatives of the Ministry of Finance on solving problems with para-fiscal levies through the Law on Fees, and we will be a good partner in that business. There is also the completing of the reform of the salary system in public administration. I’d say that’s a lot of responsible work. I am ready.
You have been entrusted with one of the most challenging processes in the mandate of the new government: reform of public administration, or the civil service. What sequence of steps can we expect in this area?
The reform of public administration is a complex process that has no time limit. Just as you finish one job, another is just beginning, and that is a permanent system of mutual harmonisation. Our task is to get the wheel of change moving, for public servants to themselves move towards meeting them because we must work continually on modernisation if we want citizens and businesses to be satisfied with our work. For now, it is crucial for us to focus primarily on changing the system of work, personnel structure and financing. Reducing administration is one of the elements, but is indeed not the only one that has to be tackled. Taken altogether, this is a complex system that must be changed from the roots. If we say that the longest journey starts with the first step, then that step is the introduction of a good system of planning, coordination of public policies, as well as the introduction of mechanisms to evaluate whether we have done things in the right way.
Our task is to get the wheel of change moving, in order for public servants to themselves move towards meeting them, because we must continually on modernisation if we want citizens and businesses to be satisfied
It was suggested that the previous minister made slow progress in her work because she was a non-partisan candidate and did not have a strong party backing her up. As a new nonparty candidate, do you fear that you could be left without adequate support when you encounter the party interests of staffing?
The very fact that I took over the department from the person who laid the foundations for my work shows that the job was previously done thoroughly. And that’s a word I would use to describe the work of the previous minister – thoroughness. Kori Udovički followed systemic logic and implemented a framework for the solution of problems which have existed for decades, and in so doing she did not look at the clock. Public administration reform is not something I can do alone; it is a process which demands that I consult with all colleagues in the Government, heads of local authorities, independent bodies, the NGO sector and the general public. I have political support, just in the fact that as a non-party figure I have been entrusted with such an important portfolio. I entered into this consciously; I know what awaits me and I’m sure my results will be the best guarantee of the support that I have. I want to say that in addition to the prime minister, who has shown trust in me beyond any doubt, I also feel that support from other members of the Government and that’s why I constantly reiterate that the government is a team.
In the economy, expectations are high when it comes to further reform of inspection work and enforcement of the Law on General Administrative Procedure. What are the prerequisites necessary to ensure a good law is applied well?
The economy strongly supported the passing of these laws, because the government has shown that it cares about the way business is done and about reducing red tape. But now we must also use implementation to prove that our will does not remain only on paper. The Law of Inspection Oversight was adopted at the request of our businessmen, and apart from the fact that thanks to it, we will have coordinated, transparent and modern inspections, we also have to think about whether we have enough capacity to bring to life a more efficient and equitable system. Simultaneously with the increase in the number of inspectors, which is necessary on the one hand, on the other hand, it has to be financially viable, because it will ensure a reduced grey economy and higher budget revenues, so we need to equip them and complete work on making a unified e-Inspector information system.
To a certain extent, citizens are already freed of the obligation of personally acquiring various documents, such as birth certificates, proof of citizenship, place of residence, and that is finally being done for them by the state authorities. This is an essential step towards reducing bureaucracy, developing electronic services and introducing European standards in public administration. However, to achieve full implementation of the Law on General Administrative Procedure, we must harmonise other laws with this law, implement bylaws and train officers in how to apply the law.
Journalists reported that you said you realised “after just one day, that reforms that require changes in the economy or civil society often have to wait because when you run a country, you also have other priorities”. What sort of priorities can a country have that are not simultaneously the priorities of the economy and the interests of citizens that NGOs represent?
Our goal is the same, but priorities in the steps that lead to that goal may vary. Sometimes something requires more time, not because someone is avoiding work, but rather because there are things that need to be resolved before that. When you work as a minister you have to emphasise the bigger picture, which shows that there are other priorities which are defined by rigorous deadlines or newly emerging issues that are urgent, and we all know the kind of capacity with which the state administration works. And we must work on raising the capacities of the administration, for us to reach those goals that we share as soon as possible.
Given that you come from the civil sector – in your opinion, what is the role in society of non-governmental organisations and associations such as NALED, and what should the relationship be like for the government and citizens towards the NGO sector?
Initiating and strengthening dialogue, even when we disagree. I will insist on a constructive dialogue between all interested parties. Civil society is a mirror of every government, and it must have a corrective role and, above all, be constructive, with the aim of finding solutions in the best interest of citizens. Non-governmental organisations can direct their energies and capacities towards educating citizens and raising awareness of important issues and changes, as well as on the importance of taking responsibility. The government, with the strong support of NALED, has managed to improve the state of the competitiveness of our economy and achieve significant progress for Serbia on the World Bank’s Doing Business list, by as much as 32 places. For me, this is an example of good practice in cooperation between the Government and civil society.
In order to have continuous and professional training of the state administration, it is important for us to establish the Academy of Public Administration, which will actually be a national academy for professional training in public administration, and this is certainly one of the priorities
What kind of message is sent by the fact that a person from civil society has been appointed as a minister in the government; what does that mean for our country?
I think it is important to emphasise that I am at the very least a person from the civil sector. I am primarily a person from the business sector, who participated in the establishment and operation of some civil society organisation, but who did so from the position of someone who has a regular job in the economy. My involvement in the formation of NALED and the Management Board of NALED is indeed something that makes me very proud because NALED is one of the most potent tools for change in Serbia. However, it is important to note that several ministers from the civil sector in the government clearly show the intention and political ambition to bring to the right places people who have demonstrated with their previous work that they have the knowledge and energy to change things. The priority is to make change for the better, and not to divide mandates exclusively among political leaders. I honestly feel that the Prime Minister has shown that this government very much wants to hear the voice of the civil sector, which, in principle, is a mechanism that does not deviate from the right path.
NALED is one of the organisations that approached the government with proposals for concrete solutions to problems in the functioning of the state administration. Is there something in that respect that you can now, in your ministerial position, immediately “unpack” from that suitcase?
In the last ten years NALED has strived to build a position as a critical partner of government, and now the political will has matured to entrust such people with direct political responsibility. I was always driven when we mobilised our energies to help and work together to make things move. Our initial positions were often significantly divergent, only for us to use dialogue to bring these positions closer to one another and thus reach a solution that neither side considered as being imposed. That’s precisely why I will insist on dialogue in my work. That is my position, and everyone who works with me is well aware of that. What I do not accept is criticism without a proposed alternative solution or at least a guiding idea on how to move from the status quo.
In my department there is also the development of e-Government and, as you know, NALED founded the Alliance for e-government and devoted a large part of its time to this specific topic. I believe that significant progress can be made in this area, in improving the business environment, primarily through the networking of institutions, electronic data exchange and the completion of electronic procedures. In that way we reduce costs, citizens and businesses will not waste valuable time on unnecessary procedures, and the state will significantly reduce opportunities for corruption. We will take care to ensure that, through individual actions, we show citizens the faster effects of the professionalisation and modernisation of the administration. NALED also gave recommendations on this topic.
From your position at NALED, you recently responded very sharply to the Fiscal Council in connection with their criticism of online fiscalisation as being an excessively expensive and inefficient solution for combatting the grey economy. On the other hand, NALED believes that the introduction of an electronic system is the best way to ensure more effective control of the issuance of fiscal receipts and making checks on compliance with regulations. With a view to the government budget, do you think there will be room for these and other ideas related to the fight against the grey economy, and what will be your priorities in the National Programme for Combatting the Informal Economy?
The grey economy is a complex problem that requires a systemic change, and here I mean in particular greater efficiency of the Tax Administration, Inspection, Customs Administration, prosecutors and courts. Only in this way will cases of illegal operations be more effectively detected and sanctioned. Most of this complex work is in the hands of my colleague Minister Vujović, who knows that he has my support and willingness to help. When it comes to my contribution, the focus will be on improving the work of all inspections. Inspections are faced with an inadequate number of inspectors and a chronic lack of resources. It is important to know that serious training for inspectors has commenced because they are now for the first time carrying out oversight of non-registered entities, which contributes significantly to combatting the grey economy but also increasing the number of newly registered companies and new employees. It is necessary to continue work on an electronic system through which inspectors would exchange information on companies, which will form the basis to carry out risk analysis and the categorisation of risk.
As for the Fiscal Council, I greatly respect the professionalism, know-how and experience of these people, and although we do not always agree, I follow their criticism and suggestions with great care. A few days ago I received their opinion on the amendments to the Law on the Financing of Local Government, and although we have a somewhat different attitude on this issue, the opinions they sent me to contain legitimate criticism that will serve the ministry as great guidance.
The government, with the strong support of NALED, has managed to improve the state of the competitiveness of our economy and achieve significant progress for Serbia on the World Bank’s Doing Business list, by as much as 32 places. For me, this is an example of good practice in cooperation between the Government and civil society
Now that you are viewing the whole thing from the perspective of the state, how do you see the relationship between NALED and the government? How will you feel if your department ends up being criticised by them?
I expect criticism to come from NALED, and as long as it is constructive, I will acknowledge it and see NALED as partners to the Serbian government. I will regularly call and talk with representatives of the civil sector and will rely on the mechanism that they have: to be corrective, constructive, objective and independent. Constructive criticism can only contribute to the quality of work.
You are one of the founders of NALED, and you spent many years on the Management Board of this association – which of its results are you personally proud of, and what could be better?
I am most proud of the team, which never stopped believing and investing energy in change. This energy and positivist approach brought us to the fact that NALED is seen as one of the most important participants in reforms, and that we have two ministers in the Government who in some way came from NALED. Could you have imagined that five years ago? This is a great achievement, great responsibility and a challenge.
This is a success that may not be visible at first glance, but the active participation of representatives of civil society in the government testifies to how committed this government is to the interests of citizens. Direct results of the efforts exerted by NALED could be seen in the passing of the National Programme to Combat the Informal Economy, the introduction of an electronic system for issuing building permits and, of course, in the fact that Serbia has improved by 32 places on the World Bank’s Doing Business list. But I must note that these results were achieved thanks to the fact that we worked on them together with the Government.
The only thing I would have liked is for some things to have flowed more quickly, but I must admit that I can now see that some delays were essential, which I did not see at the time.
NALED this year celebrates ten years of its existence. Is something being prepared to mark this occasion, and what would you single out as the most significant contribution that this organisation has given to changes in Serbia?
The biggest change brought by NALED is that the voice of the other side is treated as equal, and the fact that you do not have to sit in Nemanjina 11 for them to hear you. If at any time you want to get personally involved and take direct political accountability in the implementation of changes, you know that there can be a place for you, even though you are not wearing a party uniform. This is a change that I am proud of: the voice of credible and competent people is heard, not muted. On 6th September NALED will hold a reception at the White Palace for members, partners, most government officials and institutions, representatives of the international community and organisations and the media, to commemorate its anniversary – ten years of existence, during which Serbia has seen intensive change on the reform path to changes. I congratulate NALED on everything that has been achieved and also wants to encourage this great organisation not to allow its successes to blur the picture, but rather to act as an incentive for new initiatives and projects that will help us all work together to make Serbia a good place to live.
*Read the rest of this interview with Minister Ana Brnabić in the special publication on NALED, marking 10 years of this alliance’s work, to be released alongside CorD on 1st October