No more Kafka: Russian bureaucrats now offer service with a smile

Why We Wrote This

When an infamously unpleasant bureaucracy is replaced with a friendly, modern version, few are going to complain. But when it happens in an autocracy, it raises a question: Why now?

Fred Weir
Mikhail Zhiganov, director of the Moscow central district My Documents center, represents the new, far friendlier face of Russian bureaucracy.

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If there was one thing Russians knew when they went to a government office, it was that it would be an ordeal involving waiting, rudeness, and possibly even bribery. So it is shocking for Russians today that the once Kafkaesque bureaucracy is now quick and easy.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the establishment of centralized nodes where most government services are concentrated under one roof. A citizen wanting to get a passport, register a property, or obtain many other services may just drop in to one of these centers. You take a number and visit a single window where a smiling clerk checks your papers and passes them on for processing. Waiting times differ, but if it takes more than 15 minutes, you get a free cup of coffee.

Experts say that the move toward efficiency may be because Russia lacks any ideological sense of higher purpose. So why not anchor the state’s claim to legitimacy by performing public works?

“This is a state that does not recognize ‘we the people’ as a political force to deal with,” says Masha Lipman, editor of a journal of Russian affairs, “but it is deeply concerned with the people as a factor to reckon with, and seeks to keep them satisfied in socioeconomic terms.”

The portrait of the average Russian with a bureaucratic boot on his throat is a theme as old as Russian literature.

From youth, Russians learn to kowtow before – and often bribe – petty clerks who enjoy the power to grant or withhold vital documents. They endure endless lineups, rude treatment, and, all too often, rejection because their papers are not complete or haven’t been submitted in the proper order. Many of Russia’s greatest writers, from Gogol to Chekhov to Bulgakov, have turned their talents to skewering the Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

This has been a verifiable, everyday truth. At least, until recently. And now Russians are rubbing their eyes in amazement at a wave of transformations that seems to have happened almost overnight.

Due to a surge of government reforms over the past decade, the former public nightmare shops like the departments of taxes, pensions, and passports have been required to digitize their databases, put them online, and communicate directly with each other. That has resulted in a vast amount of simplification and streamlining – to the point where getting official paperwork is now quick and easy, and served with a smile. While it is still the face of an autocratic government, the new bureaucracy has a completely different approach toward its service – with nary a bribe needed.

“I remember, not very long ago, when you had to go to different places to collect papers for any simple thing like a driver’s license, wait in long lineups, and wait a month or more for the document to be issued,” says Natalya Beloborodova, a Moscow bookkeeper. “In the past you often had to take days off work to do these things. Now it is one stop, in and out quickly, much more efficient and reliable. If you’re missing a paper, the clerk might be able to download it for you and you can fill it out right there. It’s like a different world.”

“The state exists for the people”

It’s almost impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about the new system, and many marvel at how quickly it has happened and how radically it has transformed the traditional drudgery and humiliation experienced by Russians anytime they needed to come face-to-face with their own state. If it’s still no pleasure, at least it’s become a fairly painless chore.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the establishment of centralized nodes where most key government services are concentrated under one roof. A citizen wanting to get a passport or a driver’s license, register a property or a small business, obtain a death certificate, pay for a parking space, or many other services too numerous to list, may just drop in to one of these My Document centers.

You take a number and are directed to a single window where a smiling clerk will check your papers, make sure everything is in order, and pass them on for processing. If one needs something additional, like a photo or photocopies, it’s all available on-site. Waiting times may differ, but a new rule says that if it takes more than 15 minutes, you will be served a free cup of coffee.

Moscow alone has 133 such centers by now, serving 70,000 people daily, and the Russian government says there are almost 10,000 of them countrywide.

Olga Fefelova, the director of public services for the Moscow city government, says the groundwork for these changes was laid about a decade ago, before she took over managing the city’s My Document network. As for why all these changes are happening now – after centuries of glacial, arrogant, and remote Russian bureaucratic practice – she says it just seems the obvious way for government to act.

“This is the 21st century, and it is understood that we can’t go on acting like people are the servants and clerks are the boss anymore,” she says. “I know how it used to be. You would go to a window, bow your head, wait for some official to decide your fate. But in reality, the state exists for the people and not the other way around, isn’t that so?”

Why now?

While Ms. Fefelova’s viewpoint is welcome, it does not seem a satisfactory explanation for the timing, especially since Russia remains an authoritarian state like its predecessors. It’s true that Russians enjoy greater personal freedoms than ever before, and nonpolitical civil society is stirring, but there have been few noticeable advances in building a working democracy.

Analysts suggest various responses to the “why now?” question.

One may be that the present Russian state, unlike all of its predecessors, lacks any ideological sense of higher purpose. Vladimir Putin may be an autocrat and pragmatic nationalist, but he has no grand social engineering schemes to pursue. So why not anchor the state’s claim to legitimacy by performing public works, like the vast infrastructure-building projects currently underway?

“This is a state that does not recognize ‘we the people’ as a political force to deal with, but it is deeply concerned with the people as a factor to reckon with, and seeks to keep them satisfied in socioeconomic terms,” says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a journal of Russian affairs published by George Washington University.

Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow, says the reforms are being driven by new technologies and the digitization of everything, and that’s something to worry about.

“All this high-tech integration, putting cameras everywhere, enables the state to follow each person with unprecedented efficiency,” he says. “More control for the bureaucracy is the driving force here, even if it results in a reduction of low-level corruption and more streamlined services.”

No more bribes needed

Everyone agrees that the reforms have had the effect of dramatically slashing traditional small-scale bribery. Ms. Fefelova says that two simple innovations – inspired by their close study of such services in other countries – has practically eliminated the scourge of petty corruption that was, not so long ago, an unavoidable feature of any simple bureaucratic operation.

First, the system of taking a number and waiting your turn – familiar to anyone who lives in the West – has eliminated the jumbled lineups of the past, along with the ill-tempered squabbles they generated and the temptation to pay someone a few rubles to jump to the front. Second, the smiling clerks who meet with citizens and collect their documents are not the same officials who process them.

“We have separated those functions,” says Ms. Fefelova. “The person in the front office who receives your documents, and helps you put them into order, is not the one who makes the decisions. You never meet that person face-to-face, so where would you direct your bribe?”

All these radical improvements present a quandary for some politically aware Russians, who seem reluctant to concede any credit to a government they had no democratic opportunity to elect, and which regularly uses its police powers to crush any attempts to protest in public.

“There has been an undeniable sea change in state services, and I do personally experience and appreciate them,” says Ms. Lipman. “But that does not make me any happier with the nature of the political system.”

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