Higher education

The Educated Elite in Public Service

Simon Janashia
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In mid-March, Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili met with students of Tbilisi State University. One critical statement and a question concerning the employment of new university graduates in the public sector, as was made by a student in that meeting, was especially interesting to me. In the prime minister's opinion, the state fails to take adequate care to ensure the employment of the best graduates in the public sector.

Whether or not suitable conditions exist for employing graduates with high competences in the public sector is a legitimate question. However, it implies that the employment in public sector is an apparent benefit itself. Given that we rarely discuss such issues, I propose to dwell on the question as to how desirable it is for the elite with higher education to connect their careers with public service.

Close cooperation between higher education and the public sector is not a new phenomenon. This topic was discussed by famous German sociologist Max Weber in his paper Politics as a Vocation, in which he compared European and American traditions.

In Europe, the majority of public servants and politicians are professionals. This term does not imply high competencies or a special dedication to the job, in as much as it does the fact that a career in public service or politics starts with the acquisition of a special education.

The situation is a bit different in the United States. The majority of public servants there undertake their jobs without any special academic background. Jobs in the public sector and politics are often of a temporary nature and not a professional choice. A large segment of American politicians are lawyers or people with experience in the sphere of business.

In Georgia, during the Soviet Union, the state commissioned the education system to raise various so-called "cadres" in accordance with the standards established by the state. Those things that characterize modern higher educational institutions, such as a free environment for personal development and a wide choice of academic courses or specialties, were not considered when planning the educational process in the Soviet era.

Back then, the state raised the future elite through the education system, whom it then employed itself. It was also in higher educational institutions that the students were ideologically trained for future public service jobs. The young communists' union, which could be joined in high school, acquired special importance in Soviet higher educational institutions. Ideologically, personal success had to be closely connected with the success of the communist party and the labor class.

I do not want to sound as if the student who questioned the Georgian Prime Minister was demanding the restoration of the young communists' union. The only thing that could be seen in that student's statements was a desire for the knowledge acquired by students to be duly appreciated when selecting employees for public service. However, there is still one problem that is pertinent to the main topic of this article.

How should cadres for the public sector be selected and trained? Evidently a return to the Soviet system, which envisaged giving orders of an ideological or quantitative nature to universities, will not be useful. That would only take us back to extreme restrictions for university autonomy and the nurturing of party cadres.

It must also be decided whether we should move towards the professional or the free model of public servants. If we choose the professional model, the state may exert an indirect influence on those state programs that train public servants. In relatively democratic countries this is often done by enacting certain systems of licensing or certification. A similar thing already occurs in Georgia with the systems of teacher certification and lawyer examinations. In case of choosing the second model, the hands-on training of cadres and the frequent rotation of public servants becomes more important.

When thinking about the link between public service and the higher education system it is important to also understand how the motivation of students and new graduates might influence both the public service itself and the country's social or economic development.

Over the past decade, wages in Georgia's public service have significantly increased. According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, the average monthly salary of an employee in public administration stood at 1,031.2 GEL in 2012. This is three times higher than the average salary of an employee in the education system and about twice as high as that of employees in the health care sector.

Working conditions have also significantly improved over the same period. For example, in 2003, the education ministry had some 400 employees, of whom only ten percent had the opportunity to use computers in their work. The building of ministry was not heated and employees had no access to health insurance. Today, such conditions are hard to imagine.

In such a situation in which unemployment, according to the majority of public opinion surveys, is seen as the major problem facing Georgia, it is not surprising that a significant segment of the youth view public service as a desirable job.

Common sense seems to suggest that with competent public servants the degree of public administration will improve and, consequently, we will receive more rational, prudent and effective public policy. However, the situation is not that simple if we consider which sector needs development today and where we see the best possibilities for the youth to use their knowledge or talents.

The public sector is not regarded as the best environment for people to reveal their potential, even in developing countries that are doing much better economically than Georgia. To illustrate this, I suggest attempting to recall some talented and innovative public servants. Compare the number of such individuals one can name with those one can associate with technical progress, the world of ideas or the development of art.

While there are instances of talented people in public service, these are more often the exceptions than the rule. Working at a patent office for Albert Einstein or as a chancellery clerk for famous Georgian poet Nikolos Baratashvili might have been a source of inspiration, but this is not what the public service is famous for.

Only a tiny segment of public service employees actually create public good or directly serve public needs. However, public servants have a number of levers at hand to constantly increase their own income.

If before 2003, an increase in income was mainly achieved by corruption, today it is done by the state based on tax collections. The average salary in the public service almost doubled between 2007 and 2012. This is a sign of the efficiency of public service employees. However, this result is, unfortunately, also associated with efforts undertaken for personal welfare rather than for the public good.

By inviting the best graduates to the public sector we are depriving the private sector of the key, intellectual, creative forces necessary for its development. As a result, instead of a public administration created on the basis of the needs and requirements coming from the non-public sector, we obtain an autonomously acting bureaucracy.

What kind of policy should the state thus have so as not to become a rival to the private sector in competing for the best university graduates? First: it is important for the state to curb the increase in the number of public sector employees and their salaries. Clearly, salaries must be of a sufficient size to enable the hiring of specialists of a medium competence, but the existing trend of increases must be stopped. It is also necessary to constantly monitor and curb the increase in the number of bureaucrats.

Second: in order to be able to plan and implement such projects that exceed the competencies of public servants, the state must increasingly move towards the purchase of services provided by non-state sector employees. If today the state basically purchases non-intellectual services (for example, cleaning, printing, et cetera) only, it would also be desirable to introduce the practice of procuring consultation services when preparing state programs.

Third: the education policy, at both school and higher education levels, must facilitate the development of such knowledge and skills that will help citizens to start up their own activities. This relates not only to entrepreneurial skills. It is possible to establish start-up support centers in universities, which will assist students and other people engaged in the academic sphere in implementing their ideas.

If, as a result of the correct public policy, the number of those among new graduates willing to work in the public sector gradually decreases, this will be a positive indicator of the development of society and the economy and not of the efficiency and autonomy of the public sector.

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