Description of Estonian Public Service Training System

Description of Estonian Public Service Training System



Kristiina Tõnnisson[1]

Kaido Paabusk[2]


The paper will concentrate on analysis of different sides of decentralized public service training system as a factor for creating shared knowledge and values leading to better policy-making capacity. The authors employ available surveys, data and documents. The study shows that imposing values through decentralized system might be effective as well. Estonia’s experience has shown that it is not just formal structures and central controls that are required for establishing competent public service.


In order to progress towards common aims, people need to have common visions, understandings and ideas. Shared values and knowledge of public servants are one of the preconditions for successful policy making and analysis. As Van Wart (1998: 319) states it “the art of value management for practitioners has already become the leading skill necessary for managers and leaders of public sector organizations…”. The current paper is trying to analyze how decentralized public service training system will affect securing common knowledge and values in public service. The authors try to identify if there are any significant obstacles for creating shared values in respect to civil service training system.
The paper will concentrate on analysis of different sides of training system as a factor for creating shared knowledge and values leading to increased policy-making capacity. Does the decentralized public service training system hinder the development and implementation of effective policies? The evidence from the Estonian case study will support the central theme of the paper. The paper will address two main questions:

1)what effect does the decentralized public service training system have on creating or recognizing common knowledge and values?

2)how much do other organizational and environmental characteristics affect the process of value and knowledge creation?

The authors will present relevant pros and cons of decentralized public service training systems and their impacts on establishing shared knowledge. The paper will base on Estonian case study and the authors will analyze the major changes in the last 7 years period (1996-2003) after the Public Service Act has been in place providing the results of the research and analysis of the process. The authors employ available surveys, statistical data and written documents analysis. Finally, the paper would like to draw conclusions how the current training system could be changed in order to improve the quality of policy-making capacity.

1. Factors Affecting the Creation of Common Values

1.1. Personnel System

The personnel system of the public service is a central factor influencing the characteristics of training system. There are two main types of public personnel systems – the career system and the open system – both of which have its advantages and disadvantages (Auer et al 1996). A career system tends to require more centralized training system than a position based. The first one implies a system that offers training for entering the civil system and for career development inside the system before transfer or promotion. A post system does not make strict differentiation between the employment in public or private sector because public servants are hired for a specific post. Employees can be recruited outside public service even to the very top positions. In addition, there are usually no special university degrees, exams or qualifications needed for entering public service. It is up to every single organization to decide what kind of qualification it demands from its officials. In a post system both initial training and training during the career afterwards depend much more on the position itself than on the fact that the position is in public service.

United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration suggest that “in most developing countries, where the supply of highly trained staff is generally low, combined with weak institutional systems of checks and balances, the establishment of a career system would seem to be more likely to strengthen professional personnel management and the administration of the public sector” (UNPAN 2004: 21). Nevertheless, Estonian public service is “open” or “position based” system (Randma and Viks 2001). Only some branches of the administration are career-based: the foreign service, police service, court system, customs, etc.

Based on the Public Service Act (PSA) that came into force on 1 January 1996, Estonian public service is decentralized. Most of the human resource management processes are delegated to ministries and administrative agencies. Decisions on personnel planning, recruitment, development and appraisal are mainly done at the organizational level through evaluation and competition committees of ministries and agencies. From other hand, recruitment of top officials is centralized where Competition and Evaluation Committee of Higher State Public Servants at the State Chancellery evaluates deputy secretaries general of ministries, directors general of executive agencies and inspectorates and their deputies.

Although pay scales for basic categories of posts are set centrally in Estonian legislative acts, the remuneration system is decentralized, to a large extent. For instance, some public service organizations have introduced modern performance based salary systems, while others use more traditional ways remunerating their employees. Also pay levels differ substantially between different organizations, especially at the top positions. There are also few elements of a career system in general public service - reserve of officials, additional remuneration for years of service. At the same time, reserve of officials has not really worked in practice. Similarly, additional pay for years in service has not got many supporters at the political level. Quite likely new version of PSA, which has been stated as one of the priorities of Estonia's current government, will abolish this element from the salary system.

Positive side of this open system is that it makes it easier to replace unprofessional civil servants inherited from soviet rule with more qualified specialists outside the public sector. At the same time, too open system makes it harder to settle the civil service values or motivate existing staff. That is why it is important for organization to carry out a mandate analysis to clarify the boundaries between what must be done, what could be done and what must not be done (Smith 1994: 41).“In the past one could clearly define a public service as applying a career system…or as applying a post system… Nowadays, however, governments seem to organize their public services by merging both the systems” (OECD 1997: 7). As current analysis shows, this is also the case in Estonia.

1.2. Inheritance from the Past

Since civil service systems results also from administrative tradition and philosophy, these aspects should be taken into account as well while discussing common knowledge and competencies in public service. At the same time “the past” does not have always so much influence on the current situation or on the future as one might expect. “Thus, while we acknowledge, and indeed highlight, the influence of the past, this should be read as neither a path-dependent, nor a political-cultural, determinist interpretation of political discourses in post-communist countries…” (Dryzek and Holmes 2002: 259). From the other hand Drechsler (2000: 270) argues that problems of Estonian public administration are based on the lack of well-qualified, highly motivated civil servants based on special virtue or ethos, whereas, this special virtue is highly dependent on tradition.

Since separation of powers did not exist during soviet time resulting in a system where legislative and executive functions were merged (Hesse 1997, Vanagunas 1999, Sootla and Roots 1999, Randma and Viks 2001), this “special public administration virtue” is still heavily missing. “All of this led to a situation where the real heritage of communism is not a hierarchical, disciplined public sector, but a chaotic free-for-all, where organizations often have legally defined autonomy, rights and responsibilities, their staff and particularly managers feel certain informal ownership rights and the distinction between public- and private-sector mentality is blurred or non-existent in the eyes of most actors” (Beblavy 2002: 128). Although under the soviet rule ministries and administrative agencies existed, there was no public service in democratic sense. Public employees were supposed to be loyal to the communist party instead of citizens.

It is important to emphasize that modernizing public administration can not be separated from how countries and citizens see the role of their state and what are the functions performed by public organizations. “The standards and conduct of public representatives and officials significantly affect the standing in which they are held. This in turn affects the confidence and respect in which governmental systems are held.” (Davis 2003: 222). Current Estonian public service is quite young and inexperienced, at least compared to their colleagues in developed countries. More than 50 per cent of the employees are younger than 40 years, while around 20 per cent are older than 50 years. At the same time, almost 2/3 of public servants have been working in public service organizations less than 10 years (State Chancellery 2004). This can be seen as a disadvantage but also as a possibility or as Hatch (1997: 94) says that “…the consequences for Eastern Europe are now emerging as both exciting and terrifying…”, depending on the point of view

1.3. Civil Service Culture

Taking into account our inheritance from the past and the fact that perception of the public service affects the sort of workers it attracts (Lewis and Frank 2002), creating a new service culture is crucially important for securing common knowledge and competencies. In most CEE countries many public servants used to perceive themselves as superiors to citizens, not as servants to them. That is why creating a new culture based on responsiveness and high quality services should be one of the primary objectives of the training system in transitional countries. “…we will find that new value systems are built next to older ones, which are challenged rather than subject to erosion from within of from boundaries being broken at the margins..” (Kooiman, 2003: 35). Because of that adaptation to fundamentally new demands is especially hard task for those who have been working in public service already before the transitional changes.

Prior to implementing new value system, the organizations need first to assess the current one. One of the widely used mechanism for evaluating organizational “value environment” is a values audit that provides data on current practices and problems and possible improvements (Lewis 1991: 199-202). Other possible options are customer and citizens assessments, quality assessments, etc. (Van Wart 1998: 260-70). Unfortunately many public organizations in CEE do not have enough desire and/or resources to undergo this assessment.

When the PSA came into power in 1996 in Estonia, all people working in ministries and administrative agencies were automatically taken into public service without any control of whether these post-socialist, “cadre-type” administrators (König 1998) fulfill the requirements set in the PSA. According to the PSA, public servants had to pass special evaluation (attestation) in three years time which was later prolonged since the evaluation procedure was very unpractical and did not take into account the real situation in public service. There were no resources – time, money or expertise – available for re-training all public servants in such a short period of time.

Also pay level was quite low in public service at that time meaning that there were not very many people available for substituting incompetent public servants. Although the PSA set fairly strict requirements for entering public service, no one actually knew whether the people employing public offices had relevant competencies. As Hirschmann (1999: 302) observes: “What is the point of the state being accountable if little is being achieved, of the state being transparent if there is nothing to show?” Evaluations were eventually started from the beginning of 1999 – three years after PSA came into force. Even by the end of 2002, there were 11 governmental agencies that had not initiated evaluations in their organizations (State Chancellery 2004). Thus, the situation was not and still is not probably the most fertile ground for introducing shared values for the public service.

1.4. Human Capital and Capacity to Learn

Arguably public sector organizations can no longer manage by simple planning and controlling, but by developing capacities to manage resource issues, community issues and organizational issues within major environmental and organizational changes (Joyce 2000: 51). According to Hatch (1997: 172) non-routine technologies and unstable environment will question the effectiveness of bureaucratic organizations even more. “One common objective of public service training is to support the implementation of administrative reform and modernization: another is to improve professional skills and qualifications of staff to increase efficiency of the public service” (OECD 1997: 4). As the general trend is “from representative forms to more consultative, deliberative and participative new forms of modern democracy” (Pratchett 2000: 11), redefinition of the role of the state and redesign of public administration system has resulted in new administrators’ competencies, professional behavior and values of public servants.

Beardwell and Holden (1994: 276) argue that in order to meet challenges of quality, continuos improvement, flexibility and adaptability, organizations needed to demand more of their employees than new or enhanced job skills. They need to discover how to learn to work together, how to learn to think and how to learn to learn. “The organisation that will truly excel in the future will be the organisation that discovers how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn” (Senge 1990: 41). A recent OECD (2003) symposium on “The learning government: Managing knowledge in central government” indicated that an increasing number of government organizations introduce knowledge management measures in order to become “learning governments”.

Training and learning abilities become especially important during the chances, e.g. when government is planning to undertake broad public service reforms. That is why “this [training in the public sector] is even more important in transitional countries where major reforms in nearly all sectors are under way, and where public sector staff face many great changes within a very short time (OECD 1997: 3). Also the currently prevailing shift from government to governance requires additional special training and education. “The primary role of the public servant is to help citizens articulate and meet their shared interests rather than to attempt to control or steer society” (Denhardt and Denhardt 2000: 549). Based on all named factors, training from one hand and ability to learn from the other hand are crucial factors for organizational success.

Since human capital is the primary source for organizational innovation and renewal (Agor 1997: 175), both managers and change agents need to be aware of its importance. “Managers in public service are increasingly required to act as coaches and mentors and to ensure that employees develop the knowledge and understanding that underpin a broad range of competencies.” (Doherty and Horne 2002: 412). Of course, not all ideas and changes are successful, on the contrary, rather few of them will succeed. “Most efforts by executives, managers, and administrators to significantly change the organizations they lead do not work” (Burke 2002: 1). “It is one thing to decide you want to deconstruct an undesirable social reality, replacing it with something else is another story” (Hatch 1997: 94). Implementation is always more difficult in public sector setting than in private sector as “…publicness brings with it constraints, political influence, authority limits, scrutiny and ubiquitous ownership” (Nutt and Backhoff 1992: 201). That is why strong leadership commitment is one of the prerequisites of strengthening the capacity of the human capital while the latter one is often more depending on reforming values and attitudes than teaching or developing new skills and knowledge. The findings suggest that interesting work is more strongly related to work effort than are pay and promotion chances (Frank and Lewis 2004: 46). Because of that “active programmes of staff development are important tools for public organizations to motivate and retain staff” (OECD 1997: 5) and active staff involvement in planned reforms is a crucial factor for success.

2. Decentralization and or versus Corruption

When we look at the public administrations of new member states of the EU, we see that these countries have very different types of public bureaucracies. There is no evidence that centralized administrations have been more successful in introducing common values and competencies across public service. The same implies also for developed countries. If we take the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) evaluated by the Transparency International, we see that at the top of the table are countries with highly decentralized administrations – Finland, Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand. Also Estonia is in comparison at least to the other new EU member countries in fairly good position, losing only to Slovenia. Obviously, we cannot put an equation mark between low corruption index and professional and competent public service.