I don’t know much about judo or any of the similar martial arts, but I gather one of the central features is the ability to use the power and momentum of the attacker to your advantage.When you are attacked, the trick is to turn the aggressor’s energy back on itself. Defence becomes attack. Aggression is transformed into strength. It’s a clever combination of physics, deep philosophy and a very practical kind of experiential intelligence.
By one account at least, Ukraine is in the midst of harnessing exactly that method to turn the energy of Russian aggression into potent fuel for an impressive program of root and branch reform of government and the public sector.
The emergence of Ukraine 2.0 is not only an object lesson in silver linings in the darkest of clouds. It is also a story freighted with insights about the way to conceive and prosecute systemic reform in governing and public work. It bears some analysis here and in other countries grappling with similar challenges, albeit without the extreme conditions of invasion and war.
In its most recent edition, The Economist carries a lengthy analysis of the focus and mobilisation of the Ukraine 2.0 reform movement. Titled “war is reshaping the Ukrainian state – for the better”, these few excerpts invite reflection from those either leading, advocating or trying to implement deep, lasting reforms in government and the public realm.
Purpose, crisis and new leadership
The starting point, as always with the instinct for systemic reform, is purpose born of crisis:
When Volodymyr Zelensky became Ukraine’s president in 2019, he promised to modernise a state that until then had been a byword for bureaucracy and corruption. DIIA launched in 2020, was the centrepiece of this effort. But what began as a means to mollify exasperated voters quickly became part of Ukraine’s struggle for survival. To beat back the Russian onslaught and keep the government functioning, the state has had no choice but to become vastly more nimble and effective.
DIIA is an app that started as a way to improve things like filing tax returns, obtaining business permits, claiming benefits but now also allows patriots to donate to the war effort, struggling businesses to apply for state support and ordinary citizens to report Russian troop movements. DIIA is Ukrainian for “action” and also an acronym for “the State and Me”.
Much of this overhaul of governing and public governance infrastructure and practice is being led by “young, tech-savvy Ukrainians” seized as much by its opportunity as its necessity. In the words of one of them, Oleksandr Kamyshin, a 38-year-old former manager of a venture-capital fund who is now restructuring Ukraine’s arms industry, “we call it Ukraine 2.0. We all loved Ukraine as we knew it, but there were a lot of things in it which we don’t want to bring into a new one. We got a unique chance to build a new country.”
A little bit of history helps to set the scene:
…the Ukrainian state was born in 1991. A vestige of the Soviet Union, it was seen by many Ukrainians as more of a nuisance than a benefit. Corruption was endemic, from the bribes demanded by traffic cops to the kickbacks needed to secure government contracts. The public put far more faith in civil society than in official institutions.
Following the Maidan uprising of 2013/2014 which brought President Zelensky to power, and which emanated from the same civil society sources and leader now shaping the reform program, the work kicked into gear:
The new government, with the help of Western aid agencies, set up a series of institutions to battle corruption, including an independent investigation bureau, dedicated prosecutors and a special court. Mr Zelensky has since strengthened this system by installing a new council composed partly of retired American and European judges to regulate judicial conduct. The details of most public procurement are now made public, to make crooked transactions easier to spot.
And, by all accounts, it’s working:
These new rules and institutions have not eliminated corruption, but they have made it a far riskier undertaking, rather than the accepted norm. In the three-and-a-half years that the anti-corruption court has been operating, 65 people have been convicted in it, including 20 judges and several MPs and senior officials. Such prosecutions were unheard-of before 2014.
In the words of one reformer,”in the past few years corruption stopped being a system and became an ailment that could be dealt with.”
This new found combination of rectitude, reforming intent and practical action is upsetting some:
This change seems to have infuriated Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Not only had the popular campaign for good government caused the downfall of a pro-Russian regime; it was also undermining Mr Putin’s favoured technique for suborning Ukrainian politicians and, worse, it was creating an alarming example of successful reform that might inspire his own citizens.
The Russian invasion has not stymied the reform program. Quite the opposite. It’s added both urgency and impetus. More powerfully, it has ignited a renewed sense of vision and purpose.
Smart thinking and grizzled engineers
These are some examples from the analysis.
“the state-owned railway company, Ukrzaliznytsia was put in the hands of Mr Kamyshin, who has not only a Cossack-style semi-shaved hairdo, but also a degree from Insead, a French business school. At the time, he says, Ukrzaliznytsia was a feeding trough for corrupt officials, politicians and shady intermediaries, who sold it second-rate supplies at inflated prices.”
The strategy was clear-eyed and effective, combining the energy of new leadership and vision and deep institutional knowledge and practical experience:
Mr Kamyshin quickly cleared out the middlemen. But to keep the trains running throughout the war, despite relentless shelling and blackouts, he also had to empower not just thrusting young managers but also the grizzled engineers who know the tracks inside out.
That’s a lesson worth reinforcing – the need in any successful reform program not only for fresh ideas and new, often external energy, but to freshly harness and inspire the “grizzled engineers” who “know the tracks insight out”. Deep knowledge, grumpy and grizzled as it often is, has to be part of the revolution.
Success breeds success
As often happens in big change projects, success breeds confidence and momentum that leads to more of the same:
In March Mr Kamyshin became the minister in charge of the defence industry, another pit of inefficiency and graft. State-owned factories produced more shells in the first month after his appointment than they had done in the entire previous year. Mr Fedorov, now a deputy prime minister, has found a different way to speed up military procurement, crowdfunding the purchase of around 4,000 drones and the training of 10,000 people to use them.
And it goes on:
Mr Fedorov has also turned his hand to streamlining the operations of the armed forces. (In his trainers, sweatshirt and jeans, wielding only a sticker-spattered laptop, he has probably done more damage to Mr Putin’s war machine than most men in uniform.) He has helped create software to pool information from assorted drones, sensors and cameras to provide a comprehensive picture of the battlefield, which can be viewed in real time by everyone from generals to foot soldiers.
It’s a nice reminder that clever data and information tools have become inescapable tools in the kitbag of of contemporary government and public sector reform.
New ways to solve old problems
Right at the heart of this story, though, is a compelling insight that explains so much about what Ukraine’s reform program appears to be getting right:
Appropriately enough for a system enabling quicker, less hierarchical decision-making, the software in question was developed not at a secret military research institute on orders from on high; instead, shortly before the war began, the army assembled a team of volunteer programmers and activists; they have applied themselves to problems as they have arisen. Mr Fedorov organises hackathons to come up with solutions to specific programming conundrums. “There is a fundamental change now in how we think, how we make decisions and what kind of a country we are building,” says Mr Fedorov.
New tools, new methods, new attitudes that reflect a more creative and pragmatic exploration for people, ideas and processes to turn reform ambition into rapid, effective responses. A fundamental change in thinking, deciding and acting. It’s a big lesson still often honoured more often in the breach as reform programs struggle to escape the constraints of institutional design and habits they are trying to change.
Less hierarchy, more devolution
And the lessons keep coming:
The distaste for rigid hierarchies and the devolution of decision-making are among the defining features of this new approach to administration. Those may sound like boilerplate principles of good government, but they are rare in post-Soviet states. Their adoption by the Ukrainian army helps explain why it has been able to keep Russia’s numerically superior forces at bay.
I’m not sure I share the breezy confidence that these are “boilerplate principles of good government”, but the point is powerful. Less hierarchy (but not none, note) and devolved decision making are essential, but likely always to meet resistance and hostility.
Which is a point the analysis goes on to make:
Success is far from guaranteed, however, even if the war goes well. The forces arrayed against the reinvention of the Ukrainian state are many and powerful. For one thing, not all Ukrainians support the idea. Many in the old elite are losing their meal tickets.
This kind of deep, system reform has to confront the vested interests of those whose power and status is comfortably entrenched in a status quo that has become a big part of the problem. Turkeys, it seems, will always find it hard to vote for Christmas.
Sometimes big institutions and complex, at-scale systems can’t simply be scrapped or disregarded, but need to be radically redesigned. In this story, the example is a novel way to distribute all of the arms and weapons other countries have given to support the Ukraine forces.
How’s this for a different way to organise a very traditional massive distribution process at scale and speed, a typical public sector task, but this time harnessing something like the architecture of the Internet itself:
These have to be brought to the front lines without being stockpiled in big warehouses or transported along predictable routes, since both would create easy targets for Russian bombs. He has achieved the near-impossible by dividing deliveries into multitudes of small consignments, the vast majority of which are moved by private hauliers along a plethora of obscure and ever-evolving routes.
The packetisation of procurement. Brilliant.
Treat your citizens as allies
The story of Ukraine 2.0, as in many other dimensions of what is happening in this excruciating pivot in global history, is as practical and transactional as it is deeply philosophical, moral even in its breadth of purpose and inspiration.
And this is the key:
That hints at another change: treating ordinary Ukrainians as allies of the state, rather than adversaries or subjects. Civil society has also grown stronger during the war. A survey conducted in mid-2022 found that 86% of Ukrainians had volunteered in some way to support the war effort. There has been an eight-fold increase in the number of registered charities since the start of the war. At the same time, there has been a blurring of the lines between activism and government.
Citizens as allies, not just subjects. People and communities brought into the confidence of public problem solvers to add their expertise and experience and to become public problem solvers themselves.
The point of the story is that, while it’s a narrative infused with all of the pain and misery of war, the Ukraine 2.0 story is an object lesson in the difficult, liberating (and still unfinished) work of systemic government and public sector reform.
Many countries, including Australia, are in the throes of just such a venture and often with a lot less to show for all the intermittent effort than it seems the Ukrainian reform program has already posted.
It’s worth keeping this final insight in mind:
The new generation of reformist administrators is well aware that they are not just restructuring ministries and state-owned enterprises, but are laying the foundation of a new country. “It is essential that everybody has a vision and understands what they have fought for, what we are building..without that vision, there can be no success.”
Vision, imagination, a pragmatic blend of institutions and new networks of expertise and creativity, an ability to think and work at speed without jeopardising discernment and clarity, brilliant use of data and technology led from civil society are all in play. So too is a clear-eyed, determined rejection of vested interests and those whose refusal to change is perpetuating the problem they are supposed to be solving.
The Ukraine reform story is a powerful telling of a familiar tale of reform of how we govern, manage the public realm and recover and entrench the best instincts and capabilities of democracy.