Ministries drag feet on staff cuts

Government ministries are claiming that the 20 percent staff cuts called for by the prime minister last year are unrealistic, and have announced that they need more, not fewer, people on the job, especially if Slovakia is to make full use of the EU funding it is eligible for over the next five years.

Government ministries are claiming that the 20 percent staff cuts called for by the prime minister last year are unrealistic, and have announced that they need more, not fewer, people on the job, especially if Slovakia is to make full use of the EU funding it is eligible for over the next five years.

Back in August 2006, shortly after the new government came to power, PM Robert Fico announced that the government was determined to make "radical cuts in state administration, which should result in lower state expenditures".

His plan was to fire 20 percent of the country's bureaucrats, which, together with the closing of regional state offices, was to help the new government keep the budget deficit under three percent of GDP, which is one of the criteria for adopting the euro in 2009.

Fico said that Slovakia's state administration is burdened by over-employment, and called on ministries to analyze their operations and weed out 20 percent of their current staffs for downsizing.

However, this bold aim is proving difficult to achieve, as some ministries are already announcing that, far from being able to let people go, they actually need to hire more staff in order to fulfil all of their responsibilities.

Health Ministry spokeswoman Eva Slováková told The Slovak Spectator that "the goal of cutting staff by 20 percent cannot be realized without endangering the quality and quantity of the services offered and of the health care sector in general. Realistically, we can only afford to cut staff by six percent in 2007, and even then the process will have to be divided into three stages."

Other ministries, including education and labour, have also said they cannot afford to meet the 20 percent target.

However, the problem is not just maintaining current levels of service, but also making proper use of the Sk400 billion in EU funding Slovakia is eligible to receive from 2007 to 2013. Here, the country suffers from a critical shortage of qualified bureaucrats who know their way around EU funds.

According to MEP Miloš Koterec of the ruling Smer party, Slovakia must find the required staff quickly, or it will have serious trouble drawing EU funds, just as it did from 2004 to 2006.

"For the lack of a few people we might be unable to draw the money allocated. This is a real threat. We have to realize that this amounts to €11.5 billion (Sk420 billion), which is several times more than what was available in the previous period when we faced the same problem," Koterec told the Pravda daily.

The Ministry of Construction and Regional Development is responsible for most of the euro-fund agenda. Ministry spokesman Miroslav Bátovský said that the state needs to hire another 1,500 qualified people to properly administer the drawing and distribution of EU funds.

Of the 2,200 bureaucrats that the country needs to be able to handle the EU funds, "we currently have around 600," Bátovský said.

The new requirements put the ministries on a collision course with the government over the staff cuts.

Bátovský told The Slovak Spectator that 50 people had left his ministry following June 2006 general elections, although some posts had since been filled.

"As of February 6, 327 out of the ministry's 359 posts are occupied," he said, adding that the ministry would not be making any blanket 20 percent cuts.

"We expect that in the near future we will need around 200 [EU funding] experts for our ministry alone," he said.

On the other hand, Bátovský said that this increase in staff would not necessarily mean a rise in costs for the state.

"The salaries of employees administering the EU agenda are refunded by the EU, so they do not cost the state anything," he said.

Other ministries asked by The Slovak Spectator what staff cuts they would be making were unable to respond, as they were still preparing analyses and staff audits.

Natália Hattalová of the Interior Ministry said the ministry had not yet started laying people off, although organizational changes were being prepared.

"We don't yet have an estimate as to how much we will save on the restructuring," she said.

"Regarding cuts to the number of employees in the agricultural sector, restructuring and reorganization will certainly take place, but it is still too early to speak of concrete steps," said Agriculture Ministry spokeswoman Magdaléna Fajtová.

She said that more concrete information would be available by the end of 2007 after the government approves an action plan for the cuts, which is to be submitted by the Finance Ministry.

Among all of the country's ministries, only the Justice Ministry said it was determined to go through with the 20 percent cuts.

According to ministry spokesman Michal Jurči, the cuts are "definitely realistic".

"Since Justice Minister Štefan Harabin took office, more than 50 people have left the ministry voluntarily or been dismissed. However, some of these posts have since been filled. The number of posts occupied at the ministry at the end of 2006 was 279," Jurči said.

"The ministry is preparing a new structure that will not contain useless bureaucracy," he added.

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