Decentralised governance can help withstand crises in times when rapid action and resource mobilisation are essential. The ongoing war in Ukraine shows how decentralisation can bolster national resilience under crisis conditions. Tamila Shvyryda says the EU can learn from this – and it should reconfigure its public administration policy accordingly
In the last decade, Europe has been hit by persistent, recurring crises. These crises have challenged Europe's emergency management planning, and they have shed light on deficiencies in centralised rulemaking. A more powerful EU that gives less decision-making power to nation-states is now struggling to withstand the wave of multidimensional calamities.
The EU’s decision-making system is bureaucratic. This often makes it difficult for it to respond swiftly to crises. Decentralisation presents itself as a remedy in the current crisis-ridden political context. Ukraine is a case study from which we could learn. This might sound like a paradox. But it isn’t. Why?
Decentralising reforms in Ukraine minimised the role of the state, and granted more institutional freedom to local government, strengthening the country's EU accession hopes
In 2014, Ukraine launched its ambitious pro-European decentralisation programme of reform. These reforms reorganised the national public sector by minimising the role of the state in institutional organisation. Ukraine subsequently granted significantly more institutional freedom to localities. Community commitment and social responsibility fostered the transition to decentralised administration and prevented the system falling into a disintegration trap. The reforms overcame long-established administrative curbs and strengthened Ukraine's position as a prospective EU candidate.
The New Public Management (NPM) doctrine allowed Ukraine to activate a process of public sector transformation. NPM involves a gradual reduction of hierarchy and bureaucracy, increasing flexibility in regulation, and expansion of the partnership between quasi-autonomous units of local government. Decentralising power brings civil services closer to society. NPM reorganises the public sector with specific emphasis on decentralised management.
Decentralisation allows decision-makers to identify the required resources more efficiently when facing major external or internal crisis
Decentralised governance unifies civil society, enabling it to sustain greater operational management. It authorises local governments to apply the powers acquired to inter-level relations. Moreover, it allows decision-makers to identify the required resources more efficiently when facing major external or internal crisis. Efficient resource allocation and effective decision-making also lead to increased resilience.
If a system can recover successfully using adaptive policy response following a major shock event, we can safely say it is resilient. Decentralisation in Ukraine created opportunities for local units to improve institutional links between central and local authorities. It also invigorated local management decision-making, which has been critically important during the current conflict.
Cohesive administration between local units mitigated centralised responsibility for coordination. 'Unification under dispersion' allowed Ukraine's government to focus on broad-spectrum war management rather than centralised synchronisation. It also fostered democratic responsiveness, bolstering the country's sense of union, improved governance and transparency in policy-making.
At a time of national crisis, Ukrainian local authorities became 'first responders' to civic needs. Despite visibly diminished capacity, they still delivered decent public services. Reactive local self-governance gradually transformed to become decisive and authoritative. This has proven essential to Ukraine's wartime resilience.
Decentralisation redistributes power from central government to regional and local governments, or to civil society actors. Under crisis conditions, Ukraine's collaborative local government coordination has offered flexibility and greater participation for multi-level actors, thus fostering resilience.
Under crisis conditions, Ukraine's collaborative local government coordination has offered flexibility and greater participation for multi-level actors
Power decentralisation in Ukraine has improved the efficiency and sustainable development of public services. With international support, Ukraine has launched numerous initiatives to strengthen and restructure its administration. Programmes like U-LEAD harnessed EU knowledge and multidimensional assistance to support Ukrainian decentralisation. Improvements in public sector digitisation, including the innovative information system Vulyk, sectoral reforms, and cooperative civic strategies further strengthen Ukraine's progressively decentralising governance.
Europe can learn from Ukraine. The country's enhanced institutional resilience is an example for the EU of how to master responses to continuing polycrises. Long-term EU support for Ukraine's reform implementation can help the Union restructure its own crisis response coordination. This would improve the EU's capacity to withstand turbulent political and economic times.
To adjust to the new geopolitical reality and enhance its resilience, Europe must reconfigure its crisis-management policy. The EU must decentralise power during political disorder to ensure slick coordination between national units.
Quick decision-making is crucial in emergency response management. The EU could develop a one-off mechanism enabling decentralised national systems to link to EU policy design. Successful decentralisation reforms in transitioning countries like Ukraine could thus serve as a blueprint for EU enlargement. In this respect, such transitioning countries would need to establish a European-style administrative system in which decentralisation implies democratisation.
Representative democracy is a core EU value. Postwar adaptation will show how well the EU cultivates such values in practice. Only then will we understand how good an example war-torn Ukraine offered us.