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Public service reform looms closer

A plan to rid Slovakia of regional state-appointed bureaucrats and replace them with elected officials is currently being debated by the cabinet. If approved, the reform promises to reduce nepotism and corruption in the civil service, increase the independence of the regions and give 'more power to the people' - a formula cherished by the European Union.
Viktor Nižňanský, the cabinet-appointed author of the Public Administration Reform plan, expects his ideas to save the state 50 billion Slovak crowns annually and to inspire responsible work habits in the nation's bloated bureaucracy. But public administration experts say the project will have little effect if the bureaucratic mindset of state employees is not changed first.


Michal Sýkora (left), president of the Association of Slovak Towns and Villages (ZMOS), stands four-square behind a plan to give more power to local governments.
foto: TASR

A plan to rid Slovakia of regional state-appointed bureaucrats and replace them with elected officials is currently being debated by the cabinet. If approved, the reform promises to reduce nepotism and corruption in the civil service, increase the independence of the regions and give 'more power to the people' - a formula cherished by the European Union.

Viktor Nižňanský, the cabinet-appointed author of the Public Administration Reform plan, expects his ideas to save the state 50 billion Slovak crowns annually and to inspire responsible work habits in the nation's bloated bureaucracy. But public administration experts say the project will have little effect if the bureaucratic mindset of state employees is not changed first.

Ľudmila Malíková, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava, said the main drawback of the plan was that it didn't go far enough. State-appointed officials employed in Slovakia's 79 district offices, eight regional offices and 24 specialised networks account for only about 2,700 of the nation's total 370,000 bureaucrats. Even if these top officials became elected rather than appointed, she said, they would still be handicapped with the same old staffs and the same old work methods.

"I think we are again focusing much more on structures than on the system," Malíková said. "Public administration is still filled with people stuck in the past, who rely much more on nepotism than on improving their professional skills."

But according to Nižňanský, no civil service reform can seriously be contemplated until top civil servants gained a semblance of job security. Slovakia has no civil service law to set the conditions under which civil servants are hired, fired and work, he said, meaning that most top bureaucrats expected to be dismissed each time the government changed.

"Each employee fears for his or her job after a general election, which makes the modernisation of public administration and the training of officials virtually impossible," Nižňanský said.

Under the terms of an administrative reform launched in 1996, Slovakia is divided into eight regions and 79 districts. Each region and district is administered by a state-funded office, which controls services like police, education, health care, taxes and land registry.

By the year 2001, if the Nižňanský plan is approved, four more regions should be created, while the number of districts will stay the same. The state-funded district and regional offices, however, will be eliminated and replaced by 12 elected regional governments.

Many of the powers formerly held by state-run regional and district offices will devolve to municipal governments, leaving the national government with regional powers in only six areas - police, animal control, hygiene, environment inspection, tax offices and land offices.

The effect will be an overall devolution of power to local governments, as well as an end to political appointments of top regional bureaucrats.

The latter goal was encouraged by the European Union's Economic and Social Committee in its September 1998 position paper, which criticised Slovakia's practice of making civil service appointments on the basis of political affiliations rather than professional abilities. The EU, meanwhile, has made decentralisation a key element of Slovakia's integration aims.

"We considered this [the EU demands] to be a very important aspect of the reform," said Nižňanský. "Decentralisation of powers and budgeting will prepare Slovakia better for integration."

But another goal of the Nižňanský reform - lowering corruption in the civil service - may not be achieved simply by making regional posts elected rather than appointed. Malíková warned that given the apathy of voters where local elections were concerned, corruption could be just as big a factor on elected regional bodies as it currently is in appointed posts.

"Corruption can be strong also in small villages," she said. "We have to remember the low involvment of average people in local politics. More than 84% of the electorate voted in 1998 parliamentary elections, but in municipal election just two months later it was only 53%. And in these latter elections, almost 76% of mayors were re-elected - which could be a sign of their good work, but also of peoples passivity."

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