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EDITORIAL

Dead wood: The civil service needs more than a trim

Ah, the life of a public servant in Slovakia. Standard eight hour workdays, with actual working time kept to a minimum by coffee breaks and lunch hours. Above-standard holiday allowances and severance packages in return for a pledge not to engage in business activities. Low wages, but ample opportunity to add to pay packets with financial 'incentives' paid by customers in a hurry to have their papers expedited.
According to a 1999 report produced for the Institute for Public Policy (IVO) by Viktor Nižnianský, the man tasked by the government with reforming the country's state administration, Slovakia employed 46,823 civil servants in the central, regional and local bodies of state and municipal governments in 1999. The state spent 28.1 billion crowns on these employees this year, with another three billion coming from municipal governments.


photo: Vladimír Hák

Ah, the life of a public servant in Slovakia. Standard eight hour workdays, with actual working time kept to a minimum by coffee breaks and lunch hours. Above-standard holiday allowances and severance packages in return for a pledge not to engage in business activities. Low wages, but ample opportunity to add to pay packets with financial 'incentives' paid by customers in a hurry to have their papers expedited.

According to a 1999 report produced for the Institute for Public Policy (IVO) by Viktor Nižnianský, the man tasked by the government with reforming the country's state administration, Slovakia employed 46,823 civil servants in the central, regional and local bodies of state and municipal governments in 1999. The state spent 28.1 billion crowns on these employees this year, with another three billion coming from municipal governments.

Slovakia employs another 285,967 people in nation-wide organisations funded by the state budget, and 35,283 in bodies supported by municipal budgets - teachers, soldiers, police, judges, border guards, tax officials and so on. That makes about 370,000 people working in the public sector, which Nižnianský reckons is 19% of Slovakia's economically active population.

From President Schuster to ministry officials to diplomats to the lowliest clerks in the land, it's clear that the Slovak economy cannot support so many non-productive employees. The government has promised to reform the state administration, starting with the dismissal of 10% of civil servants in the year 2000, but given that employment in the public sphere has actually risen 6.5% this year, it would appear that saying has proven easier than doing.

Slovakia's public administration experienced two periods of quick growth. The first was from 1993 to 1996, as the country struggled to build its own bureaucracy and state institutions after the separation of Czechoslovakia. The second was from 1996 to 1998, as the government of Vladimír Mečiar 'reformed' the civil service for political purposes.

Mečiar's 1996 reorganisation of Slovakia into 79 districts and eight regions threw the bureaucracy into chaos, as tasks formerly done by one office were now divided between several new state offices. In some regions, the number of state employees grew to two or three times the per capita ratio of other regions, as the Mečiar government tried to use civil service jobs to keep unemployment levels down. Perhaps the biggest civil service boom came in 1998, an election year, when the Mečiar government increased its spending on the state administration by 17.3%.

The Slovak bureaucracy is now a shambles. Fully 50% of state officials do not meet their job descriptions, Nižnianský writes, while corruption and apathy is rife. Indeed, it's in the civil service that the communist mentality has endured the longest: bureaucrats know that their jobs are secure no matter how poorly they do them, and see themselves as masters rather than servants of the private sector.

Reforming the civil service is thus no longer simply a matter of cutting state expenditures and reducing the fiscal deficit.

By cutting 10% (or more) of state employees, the government could in turn reduce the tax burden on businesses and individuals, giving an impetus to economic growth.

By introducing a system of performance-related bonuses for the bureaucrats that remained, the state could radically improve the quality of service that public servants offer the public.

By improving the education, training and attitudes of state employees, the government would remove a major barrier to foreign investment and domestic enterprise.

By getting tough on corruption, sloth, arrogance and incompetence in state offices, the government could fight the negative influence of these traits on the mood of the nation and on people's attitudes to work in general.

Alas, we cannot expect such radical steps from the government next year. Unemployment is already at critical levels, and several branches of the civil service - education, health care and the police - cannot afford to lose too many employees. Firing state employees is also very expensive, given the compensation packages sewn into their contracts.

But if the government were to concentrate on the 46,823 people who work for it, and eliminate even a modest number of sullen post office clerks, unco-operative town functionaries, rude ministry mandarins, jumped-up jack-in-offices and self-important Gauleiters of every stripe, it would be taking a giant leap towards a functional market economy.

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