CAN Slovakia afford the luxury of founding a state office costing millions of crowns just to test an idea, and then scrap the office four years later, saying it was more trouble than it was worth? Apparently the answer is "yes", even if one strongly suspects that the country's GDP figures have gone to more than a few heads in parliament.
The ruling coalition and the parliamentary opposition, after four years of often torrid relations, were miraculously able during the tense weeks before June elections to find common ground and a two-thirds majority (101 votes) to kill the State Service Bureau.
The Bureau had been set up by Mikuláš Dzurinda's first government to supervise the selection and training of state servants for jobs at public institutions. The idea was to create a professional civil service to gradually replace the political nominees that until now have staffed such posts. A grand idea, but one that took too little account of the Slovak political reality.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that politicians across the spectrum simply wanted to regain control over this massive patronage machine, this bottomless pork barrel, even if it meant a return to wholesale personnel changes every four years. Indeed, defenders of the Bureau, led by its head, Ľubomír Plai, have argued that the country's politicians were looking for a way to motivate their members ahead of June elections by promising plum state jobs in return for their loyalty.
On the other hand, political parties and ruling administrations have a legitimate desire to control state bodies and their behaviour by nominating "reliable people" to lead these institutions.
Critics of the State Service Bureau said it was far too inflexible and that the selection process took far too long.
The Bureau's opponents also noted that Slovakia is struggling with an overweight bureaucracy numbering over 40,000 civil servants, and that there was no point in maintaining an office that was not doing a satisfactory job.
At the start of its electoral term in 2002, the Dzurinda cabinet promised to cut the state bureaucracy. Instead, Slovakia today has 7,000 more bureaucrats than it did four years ago, according to the Hospodárske noviny daily. State officials argue the increase was necessary because they had to perform new tasks.
Thus it was that over the past four years, offices like the Agricultural Payment Agency and the Public Health Care Authority were established, to questionable purpose and even less visible impact.
Some say that the State Service Bureau was too naive a concept, that the idea of a pure-minded body that promptly and conscientiously filled empty state posts with the best professionals simply clashed with the political reality of the country.
Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš clearly felt that the Bureau was a waste of money. "The State Service Bureau was not necessary," he said tersely.
Back in August 2005, the Dzurinda government issued a report saying that administrative complexity and insufficient staff at ministries were holding Slovakia back in drawing funds from EU sources.
The average citizen naturally asked what the 7,000 extra bureaucrats could be doing if the government was still complaining of a staff shortage.
Unfortunately for the Bureau, which was supposed to ease the hiring of professionals to important positions, it came to be seen as part of the problem, itself a bureaucratic burden.
Of course, getting rid of the office will cost money as well, so taxpayers have yet another example of bureaucratic waste to ponder.
The timing of the Bureau's closure was very disadvantageous for politicians, who will have a hard time dodging the accusation that they wanted to open the way for sticking political nominees in state posts.
The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), the Hungarian Coalition Party, four members of the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO), three deputies from the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Bohumil Hanzel of the opposition Smer, and six independents raised their hands for the cancellation of the Bureau.
Was it truly impossible to reform the Bureau so it could fulfil its tasks? Does the country even need an institution for filling state posts? Shouldn't parties themselves reform their approach to nominating people to state positions, given that the politicization of the state administration has been a glaring problem for the past decade?
Perhaps even more seriously, it remains to be seen how the cancellation of the Bureau will affect the modernization of the state administration, given that the State Service Bureau was one of the recipients of EU money for the project.
Slovak ministries and state institutions have promised on several occasions to tighten their belts and save public funds. Though recent data on GDP growth have shown that public sector spending does not have as dangerously large a share in the creation of GDP as it did back in 1996, Slovakia's state administration is still too expensive given that the health and education sectors remain starved of funds.
Professionals and fine minds in Slovakia still often need an affiliation with a political party to win a state job. The public will never know whether the State Service Bureau was the right tool to change this system and open the door for non-partisan professionals. But given the fact that the Bureau had four years to make its mark and failed, its demise will be mourned less sincerely than the money wasted on its brief life.
By Beata Balogová
20. Mar 2006 at 0:00