Ministers Reflect is a new interview series on “how to be effective in government”, following a model developed by the Institute for Government in London. The series seeks to capture – in former ministers’ (or deputy ministers’) own words – what it takes to be an effective government minister, what challenges they face, and what broader lessons their experiences may hold. The interview was conducted on 13 November 2020, by Hans Gutbrod, Irakli Asanishvili, and Guga Chomakhidze, all at Ilia State University. Nino Gabelashvili contributed to preparation and editing.
Thinking back to when you first started as a (deputy) minister, what was your experience of coming into government like?
Tamar Karosanidze: Before we jump into those questions, greetings to Guga and Irakli [participating students from Ilia University]. I think what you’re doing is an extremely interesting and practical experience for students, and it’s going to be so useful for so many new deputy ministers or ministers coming into government.
For me, another reason for joining this interview was to acknowledge the civil servants and the military people that we have. I met some amazing people in the Ministry of Defence. What I cherish and respect the most from that experience, is getting to know them and knowing that we have such people in our civil service. I should also say, my memory is a bit rusty, but I’ll try to do my best. Some of my memories at this point are more on the emotional than the factual level, but if I don’t remember something, I will say so.
I was never planning to join the government. For me, it was a very unexpected offer.
Now about the question. I was never planning to join the government. For me, it was a very unexpected offer. Had I thought a lot — should I accept this proposal to become the deputy minister or not — I probably would not have done it. I just jumped into it and said, let’s give it a try. If it doesn’t work out, I can always leave.
I think that’s an important thing when somebody is making a decision about joining or not joining the government. Especially in Georgia, where governments often get discredited and experienced people don’t want to go into politics or join the government, and they also question their skills and abilities. I just thought: we had so many deputy ministers in the Ministry of Defence, not all of them were great. They decided to accept the job, why don’t I also give it a try? If it doesn’t work, I will leave.
Another thing was that I joined the Ministry of Defence after the change of the ruling party. In this situation, we did not get much of a de-brief. You step into the Ministry of Defence not having any opportunity to talk to the former deputy ministers or ministers and get an induction from them – this is where things stand now, this is what you need to remember when you are stepping into these shoes.
It was just walking into the ministry and then it was a blind spot. You had to yourself think: who can I talk to, minus the former deputy ministers. Also, you don’t want to go in and show everyone you don’t have a clue. You have to be strategic about the questions you ask, the people you talk to, and how much not knowing things you can actually show.
There were several international consultants in the ministry at that time who were free from political influence, affiliation, and interests. Most of the information I got at the start was from them.
What was helpful was that there were several international consultants in the ministry at that time who were free from political influence, affiliation, and interests. For me, the most useful thing was to talk to them. There was a British consultant who had been there longer than any minister, with so many changes that had happened in the Ministry of Defence. He was the wealth of information. There was also a person from the NATO Liaison Office who was very interesting to talk to. Most of the information I got at the start was from them. One problem was also that with the Ministry of Defence at that time being one of the most closed institutions, you couldn’t really Google much about it either.
That was the first what I remember, the first thing, making the decision, stepping into the unknown and finding it difficult to get information about where are we now, and what were some of the things that had been started, and that I needed to continue — or drop.
What did you find most surprising in the first few weeks or months?
TK: Two things were surprising: one, in the first few days was finding some really capable people. You could tell from the first meetings with them, speaking with the department heads or deputy department heads — there were some very smart people. Working in the NGO sector, you thought (I’m talking just for myself and not the entire sector) most qualified people go to the private sector, to NGOs, they don’t go into civil service. That is very much not true. And it was not true, then.
The second surprise was that you could get things done. This surprise came in the first weeks in the job. We had daily meetings, with Irakli Alasania, the minister, when all deputy ministers and the military leadership discussed what was going on. A couple of weeks in, we were sitting in that meeting and Irakli Alasania said, so what’s happening in your field? When I told him, these are the things that need to happen, some of the main ideas. Him saying, okay, go ahead and do it then.
For the NGO person, you keep giving recommendations to the government and somebody else must implement them — and they never do. Being in government, whatever you say needs to be done – be ready to be responsible.
For the NGO person, you keep giving recommendations to the government and somebody else must implement them — and they never do. Being in government, whatever you say needs to be done – be ready to be the responsible person to get that done. Now you’re in charge. You don’t give recommendations and expect somebody else to do it, or rather not to do it. It’s one thing that I remember, very vividly, that specific meeting with Alasania.
What were your initial priorities on entering the office? What did you want to achieve?
TK: Going into this new job, especially after the change of government, you have many people coming to you with different priorities, in the first days and weeks. Everyone tells you “this is a priority”, whether it’s people working in the ministry or the international community. From these hundreds of priorities, you can’t do everything at the same time. You have to pick things that are more urgent. It’s a complex issue. Some things were easy to do, you just needed a decision. You needed the green light from the deputy minister and the things were ready to be done. You did those first, take some issues off the list so that your to-do list gets a bit smaller.
Being the new government, for the minister, it’s also very much a political job, and his image is out there. You had to go for some of the biggest problems, like the lack of transparency, the risks of corruption in the Ministry of Defence. You had to prioritize those issues.
When I went to the ministry, I didn’t have any military background. I was asked to be in the ministry because of my transparency and anti-corruption background. Those were the issues that I had more knowledge about, and that’s why I thought it was a good idea for me to prioritize them. Also, the Ministry of Defence was criticized foremost because of its lack of transparency and allegations of corruption. For that reason as well, these were the right issues to prioritize.
In the Georgian government, you don’t have the luxury to think long-term, you have to expect to lose your job anytime.
One more thing about prioritization is that in the Georgian government and especially in the Ministry of Defence, you don’t have the luxury to think long-term, you have to expect to lose your job anytime — in a month, six months, or one year. Long-term planning is wonderful, and you can have that plan and keep that somewhere on the side. But it’s extremely important to get started on things.
The thinking for me in prioritizing was, if we touch those really problematic issues and if we get started, then the next person when he comes in, or she comes in, he or she can’t say, “oh, this is too complex we can’t just go into it.” He or she would have to drop what we have started and that’s a more difficult decision and can draw more criticism. That was the thinking we had: let’s do something and make it more difficult for the next person to drop or to reverse it.
Thinking about the day-to-day reality of being a deputy minister, how were you spending most of your time?
TK: Meetings, lots of meetings! You have so many meetings with internal staff and everybody needs to talk to the deputy minister.
You had to change that mentality both within and outside the ministry. Under the previous government, you had very top-down decision-making. To get a decision you had to talk to the top leadership, sometimes even to get a feeling for the direction the ministry was going. For that reason, everybody wanted to meet with the deputy minister rather than department heads.
Everyone wants to come and talk to you as a deputy minister; even better if they can talk to the minister. So, you have lots of meetings.
In reality, the department head is at a very senior level and the people at the department head level decide a lot. But still, everyone wants to come and talk to you as a deputy minister; even better if they can talk to the minister. So, you have lots of meetings. You can’t make yourself unavailable your staff needs to meet with you, you must find the time and meet with them. You also have lots of people coming from the outside. The military attachés in Georgia and the Ministry of Defence also received many international delegations. Even though we had a deputy minister who mostly dealt with international relations, the other deputy ministers responsible for different fields within the ministry also had to meet with these delegations. A lot of your time is taken by these meetings.
Another part of the job is following up. You can have lots of discussions with your staff on what needs to be done, but it’s big machinery and you have to follow up and find out if things are happening. You must go through your to-do lists regularly, making sure that the actions followed your discussions. What else? There was the politics outside the ministry that we had to respond to. For me, that was the most unpleasant part of this job. It took you away from the remarkably busy agenda. I’m not saying that politics are not important, but with politics, there are so many other considerations that come in. Sometimes you have to say things that you don’t like saying. At that time, [President] Saakashvili made allegations, “Oh, there are so many bad things happening in the defence ministry, these and these soldiers are not being looked after.” You had to respond, you couldn’t let any of that fly without response. So that took you off the track.
Could you talk through an occasion where an unexpected event or crisis hit the ministry? How did you deal with it?
TK: The most unexpected event was the final bit of my time at the ministry when there were allegations about corruption. I studied every detail of this case, and I’m 100% confident there was no corruption of any sort. I was not a member of the political party of Irakli Alasania, so I didn’t know all the political nuances about Alasania’s and Bidzina Ivanishvili’s interpersonal relationship. It was unexpected, for me.
The way to deal with this crisis was to be extremely open. We didn’t try to defend ourselves or to issue broad denials. Instead, we tried to bring in other people who were trusted and who had no political interests or motivations to support us. We talked to the NGO sector, the international community, and the media, giving them all the information that was not secret and saying, any questions you have you can ask. The senior leadership met with anybody who had any questions about the corruption allegation.
It was a difficult period. It was not just about the reputation of the ministry, which was a serious problem already. We were bragging about reducing the risks of corruption and how much more transparent the ministry had become. And that’s exactly where it hit us, the allegation about corruption and stealing money in procurement. The reputation of the ministry was at stake, but also the five people who were thrown in jail who had absolutely not done anything bad. It was a very emotional issue. The way to deal with it was, again, openness and maximum transparency and being very straightforward with information.
How did you deal with that crisis, on its various levels? And more in general, how did you make decisions – e.g. did you prefer to get everyone around a table and discuss, or did you prefer a paper-based system?
TK: For that specific crisis, it was working as a team. We needed to also support each other and the families of detained personnel emotionally – it was an emotional issue. Everyone’s reputation and the ministry’s reputation, as I said, was at stake. It was very much teamwork. The paperwork also followed because we had to provide all the evidence that there was no corruption.
For decision-making in such a crisis, and generally, I do like talking to people. I almost never talked to department heads only. As a deputy minister, you might decide that the next level is the department heads, I can just talk to him and her and then get all the information and it’s his or her job to get all the information from the rest of the department staff. I preferred talking to everyone in the department. You have more interesting discussions when you involve everyone.
[During the crisis] I preferred talking to everyone in the department. You have more interesting discussions when you involve everyone.
We made the best decisions when a large number of people were involved, for several directions that I had to work in, whether it was the personnel management – military and civilian, the transparency reforms, gender equality issues, or professional development. The paperwork followed. When we had to make decisions, we didn’t try to reinvent a bicycle. Whatever challenge you need to resolve has already been resolved elsewhere. Especially in the military system, you have NATO standards and international standards. You do not have to invent those.
When we were making our decisions, we tried to gather a lot of information about international experience, and what had been done at the ministry in the previous years.
But generally, when making decisions, it’s always better to involve lots of people and also to give people the feeling that they are part of making the decision. They get things done with a different grade of motivation and enthusiasm when they know where the decisions are coming from, and what they’re based on.
What do you feel was your greatest achievement in office? Or, since you have highlighted that these are based on the team working, what were the team achievements in your time?
TK: I think it’s in the field of transparency. We had major accomplishments and what contributed to that was at least two things. One is prioritizing this issue and having something on your to-do list daily for improving transparency in the Ministry of Defence.
We had some very good evaluations from the NATO office and the international community, and in reviews from Transparency International. Our ratings improved significantly in this area.
The pay-by-rank system was another important accomplishment, which was a big deal because it was something that NATO had been recommending Georgia for a very long time. Previously, Georgia had been dragging its feet [Background: before introducing the pay-by-rank system, the Georgian military had a pay-by-position system, tying salary grades to positions rather than the rank that is indicative of soldiers’ levels of experience, expertise, and authority. International practice mostly is to tie pay grade to rank], and it got done.
One person that was amazing, and I particularly want to highlight his role, is the former head of the J1 Department, the military personnel department. It is largely because of him that this reform happened. One guy, the head of the military personnel department, and his military background and education. He got it done, and we just enabled him.
You can imagine how much eye-rolling you got when you started talking about gender equality in the military. They kept their poker faces [laughs], but you could feel the eye-rolling even when they tilted their heads down.
We also started working on the things that nobody had bothered with, like gender equality, for example. You can imagine how much eye-rolling you got when you started talking about gender equality in the military. They kept their poker faces [laughs], but you could feel the eye-rolling even when they tilted their heads down.
Going back to transparency – it was important to prove that you could have transparency in the defence sector. Before the Rose Revolution, we thought that we would always have corruption in Georgia, it was our mentality. The Rose Revolution changed that. Similarly, in the Ministry of Defence you had this notion that it’s the most closed institution, it will always remain closed, you can’t make it transparent. Changing that was also a significant achievement.
It was important to create a different vibe within the ministry. Again, I think the Ministry of Defence had suffered the most from the quick changes of the ministers, and also from not getting the best leadership. We had heard some terrible stories about how some people had been treated in the Ministry of Defence, which is why we needed to change the vibe. I think Alasania enabled this shift in attitudes toward the people within the ministry, at any level.
Also, giving the people a feeling that “we want to push things forward and we want you to be part of this process.” It was amazing to see how motivated people got, to help you do things right.
How did you interact with international partners? How are they support, and can they be a distraction?
TK: They can be a distraction sometimes, but they’re more help than distraction. We had amazing consultants from different countries. Some consultants are on the ground, often for the long term, but some people come in for short visits. Some of the international consultants had forty and even fifty years of experience in the military. They had seen a lot and they had helped lots of countries. Sometimes they gave us the answers to some of the most difficult questions. They had answers based on the experiences of others and their own countries. It was extremely helpful.
It was also a good pat on the back, giving another layer of confidence that you were doing the right thing, when they came and you talked to them about what you were doing, and when they gave positive evaluation. This was an important support for us.
When you’re in the NGO sector, you have to fundraise, it’s hard to get money and the international support that you need. In the government you said, you needed support, you got it the next day.
What surprised me about the international support is how much of it we got in the Ministry of Defence. Coming from the NGO sector, I almost envied the government. When you’re in the NGO sector, you have to fundraise, it’s hard to get money and the international support that you need. In the government you said, you needed support, you got it the next day. If they saw the political will and that you actually wanted to fix something, you got the support immediately, whether it was financial or expertise. For that, we should be grateful to the international community. The support came almost instantly when we needed it.
What about the immediate “office” that a deputy minister has – did that function effectively, and if not, are there potential structural improvements?
TK: Well, it’s a good office, both in terms of the staff and the infrastructure. It’s unnecessarily big as a physical space, so you can fit lots of people. Why not use it and have large meetings with all your people who have something to say and contribute?
As a deputy minister, there were five of us, and everybody had their main directions that we had to work on. We had daily meetings with the minister to exchange information. Beyond those daily meetings, the minister was very accessible if you needed to clarify some issues. Then you have the departments and the department heads who are in almost daily contact with you. Within departments are lots of divisions, and each division has its own staff. There’s nothing that especially stands out that I can tell about how it works, but it was very informal in our case. The staff member of the department might not come to you without letting the department head know. But at the same time, they did not feel like they had to pass the message through the department head. They could come into the deputy minister’s office to talk to you directly without the head of the department being there. That was how it worked, but other than that nothing particularly stood out, I think.
You have an unusual and fairly unique experience in leading the country’s main transparency organization, and then becoming a deputy minister in a ministry that is not always keen on transparency, also for good reason. What did you learn that may be relevant, from both perspectives?
TK: For me, it was extremely useful to have that experience from the NGO sector. Now that I’m back, broadly, into the NGO Sector, it’s extremely useful having the experience of having worked in the government.
If I could, I would have an exchange program between the civil service and the NGO Sector.
If I could, I would have an exchange program between the civil service and the NGO Sector. It really was an eye-opener for me. I still have a hard time convincing some of my colleagues in the NGO sector that there are very smart, capable, and motivated people in the civil service, and vice versa.
When I went into the government, they looked at me as an NGOshnik [ironic or derogatory term for someone from the non-governmental sector – eds.] at first: “now, she’s going to come with her NGOshnik ideas.” It was hard to get people in government to understand that you have people in the NGO sector who are not just going for foreign funds, and who don’t just want to criticize you, but want to improve things.
If I could change something with a magic wand, I would change that: change the mind-set in these two sectors, where we have more respect for each other and understand where the people are coming from. We have some of the most amazing people in the civil service and also, in our military.
Another lesson in government was what I mentioned before: if you think something needs to be done, go do it. You have to be ready. In Soviet times, we had this saying “initiative is punishable”. It’s not really punishable when you have an initiative in the government, but you have to know when you say something needs to be fixed, you don’t throw it in the air. You have to go and fix it.
The third thing was, as I have mentioned, international support. There’s a lot of it, ask for it and you will get it. This is the case in the government. Things are much more difficult in the NGO sector, especially when you try to get financial support.
Also, of course, you’re dealing with issues of different complexity. In government, there are so many things that you must take into account. What will your leadership think, like the Prime Minister? How will the ruling party take it? Plus, you’re dealing with such a large number of personnel in your ministry that you have to consider that as well. This is different from the NGO sector, where the staff is much smaller.
In the NGO sector, you decide when you go public, and in the government you’re public all the time.
Also in government, you’re much more out and about, you’re in public. In the NGO sector, you decide when you go public, and in the government, you’re public all the time. People can come to you, ask you questions, request information, and expect to know what’s going on in your office, on a daily basis. That’s a big difference.
Then there is reputation. In the NGO Sector, you do something wrong and your reputation will be damaged, but not as much as if you do something wrong in the government. Then your reputation is damaged and the reputations of your minister and of the government are damaged. The differences are really substantial.
You served as a female deputy minister in a traditionally male domain. How was that?
TK: That’s something you must deal with internally. You have to know that when you’re going to the Ministry of Defence as a female deputy minister, and without the military background.
When you meet with people, especially in the military, but also non-military, you know, that there’s a lot going on in their heads. They may keep a straight face and smile at you. But they’re thinking, what does she know? This person coming from the NGO, now she’s going to start doing all this women-empowerment stuff and we have to deal with it. I stopped worrying about what was going on in their heads. I didn’t try to guess, is he taking me seriously right now, or is he not? You have to take advantage of your status, of your position, and do your job.
I stopped worrying about what was going on in their heads. I didn’t try to guess, is he taking me seriously right now, or is he not? You have to take advantage of your status, of your position, and do your job.
In the military especially, the hierarchy really matters. When you’re a deputy minister, when you decide that something needs to get done, whether or not they love it and are totally on board, they have to do it. I tried to take advantage of that. Let them think that I’m a crazy feminist, so what?! I just stopped worrying about it.
Another advantage that we tried to use in the military was that it’s hierarchical, plus you’re dealing with large numbers of people. I thought it was a good place to start talking about gender equality issues. They had to sit and listen. We invited some of the NGOs who dealt with gender equality issues and tried to get interesting speakers from elsewhere.
When you invite the military people to attend these [gender equality] lectures they can’t just get up and walk out, which is something that people in a civilian context can do. They can’t walk out.
When you invite the military people to attend these lectures they can’t just get up and walk out, which is something that people in a civilian context can do. They can’t walk out. They had to listen and once they listen, then maybe somebody will still leave that room, not changing his or her opinion at all. But some might start looking at things differently and you can get at least small changes in their mindsets.
Gender equality was one area where it was important to get started because when the next deputy minister comes in, especially if he’s a male, maybe he will not prioritize that. As a deputy female minister, you have to get started and somebody will have to follow. It’s more difficult to completely drop something that has been initiated already.
What advice would you give to a minister entering government for the first time?
TK: I think the thing is not to be too scared. It’s really not rocket science almost in any field — [laughs] unless you go into rocket science. The military thing is so complex and it’s so much responsibility that you think, I’ve got nowhere to even start. Yet, even in the military sector, which is so technical, there are many non-technical issues.
What I noticed in working at the Ministry of Defence, is that when we tried to engage NGOs, some of them were reluctant: “no, we don’t deal with the military, we don’t deal with defence.” But in military and defence, you have procurement issues, you have personnel issues, you have professional development issues. There are lots of non-military and non-technical stuff that the NGO sector has expertise in. I think it’s important to see those aspects of your job in whatever job you’re going to do. In the UNM times, they used to say, you don’t need the field experts as ministers, you need good managers. It’s ideal to have a background in the specific field you’re about to manage, but broader management skills and seeing the very different aspects of whatever field you’re going into are also very important. That’s one thing to keep in mind: just not being too scared.
In the beginning you don’t want to look too lost and confused when you step into the new job, but also you shouldn’t be too ashamed to ask questions when you don’t know something. The people in the ministry who know those answers, like giving you the information, and then they’re the ones to enlighten you, as a new deputy minister. And again, prioritize. Being in the government of Georgia, expect to lose your job any minute. I’m afraid that’s not going to change soon, unless you’re Thea Tsulukiani [the longest-serving minister under Georgian Dream government, she recently did lose her job and moved to Parliament – eds.]. You never know how long you are going to be there for, and you can’t do things “nice and slowly”. Use the window of opportunity to kickstart things, and then to make some additional commitments, to make them official and public.
We developed an anti-corruption strategy and the anti-corruption action plan. For some of the actions, we had time frames of six months, some for two years. These documents were adopted by decree. Turn some of your commitments into legal documents and disseminate them widely. Make them part of your international commitments, as well. Whoever comes in next will have to do something about it.
Are there any highlights or bright spots in your time as a deputy minister that you think would be of interest?
TK: Yes, I will explain again why I have big respect for this one individual who developed the pay-by-rank reform: the pay-by-rank system is a complex system. It is a technical and financial issue with many financial implications. It was a very sensitive issue because many people were going to lose financially because of the new pay-by rank system. What this one guy did was amazing.
When you’re teaching reform design and implementation, you basically can use him as a demonstration of every step of what needs to be done, starting from the international research, analyzing who’s going to lose, who’s going to benefit. He developed the messages for both groups, did the financial calculations, outlined different alternatives, and developed the timeframe.
He had the answers to the questions: if you go this way what’s wrong with it? What is better? What are pluses and minuses? He also developed the information campaign to get people on board, even those who were going to lose from this.
He really did all of it. That’s why I think he was amazing. I’ve never seen anyone who was that all in, in any comparative setting. There is a broader aspect here, too, across the ministry. You had some people, in the civilian office, who went through (and survived) different deputy ministers and ministers. They often attended meetings with the international community and noted down their recommendations. There were some commitments that the Georgian government had taken in the past. These people in the departments were doing their job to meet the international commitments, they were developing the personnel management structures, or developing the professional education structures and the programs. But these documents were just sitting on their shelves.
These people in the departments were doing their job to meet the international commitments, they were developing the personnel management structures, or developing the professional education structures and the programs. But these documents were just sitting on their shelves.
When you went in, you basically had to enable those people. They had to take these documents off the shelves and start implementing them. You needed to tweak things here and there and start the implementation process. Looking at the Ministry of Defence from the outside, you felt like there was nothing going on there. But it turns out the people in the departments were doing a lot of work, at least to show to the internationals when they came in, like Shevardnadze’s anti-corruption strategy documents that looked great on paper but never got implemented. You had to dust those off, get those papers out, see what needed to be revised, and start implementation. That’s what happened in many areas.
Is there anything we haven’t asked about that you would like to add?
TK: One thing that made things more difficult is that you had so many layers of personal issues in the ministry. There were so many skeletons in the closet that I think one of the most difficult things for me was to understand the personal relationships between different people, especially in the military sector.
There were so many skeletons in the closet that I think one of the most difficult things for me was to understand the personal relationships between different people.
Understanding that people do not come to you in the official capacity and tell you, this guy hates that guy because ten years ago he called him corrupt at a supra. Those kinds of incidents influenced how people interacted with each other and whether or not they supported some big reform initiatives. You have to have some kind of informal interaction and in informal settings with your people to learn about these relationships. You need to understand that there are so many layers in the Ministry of Defence.
Burnout is a big risk and I had to force myself to switch the brain off, take my mind off the work when outside the ministry building, to refresh. That’s something that many government people forget.
On a more personal level, while working in the ministry, it was very difficult to switch your brain off even when you were not in the office. Burnout is a big risk and I had to force myself to switch the brain off, take my mind off the work when outside the ministry building, to refresh. That’s something that many government people forget. On a personal note, I would give that recommendation, just switch your brain off. Things are not going to collapse in those 30 minutes or one hour, and it will give you a big boost.
Thank you very much for sharing your experience, with all that insight!
TK: You’re most welcome. I like what you’re doing, and I wish I had this information when I was starting.