EDITORIAL

Trimming state bureaucracy

TRIMMING a burgeoning state bureaucracy is in its very essence a commendable political act – but only if the state’s leaders both talk the talk and walk the walk. The promise of narrowing the waistline of Slovakia’s bloated state administration has always been one of the favourite enticements in politicians’ candy box of sweet-talk meant to comfort taxpayers that their money isn’t being wasted on regiments of redundant bureaucrats.

TRIMMING a burgeoning state bureaucracy is in its very essence a commendable political act – but only if the state’s leaders both talk the talk and walk the walk. The promise of narrowing the waistline of Slovakia’s bloated state administration has always been one of the favourite enticements in politicians’ candy box of sweet-talk meant to comfort taxpayers that their money isn’t being wasted on regiments of redundant bureaucrats.

At first sight it seems that Prime Minister Robert Fico is now about to keep such a sweet promise. Parliament has already nodded approval to Fico’s grand plan to close up the self-standing Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Construction and Regional Development, merge the former with the Ministry of Agriculture, then toss in the regional development duties from the latter and create a brand new Ministry for Agriculture, Environment and Regional Development.

But before bureaucracy-reducing advocates get too enthusiastic, it’s necessary to add a couple more important facts. First, it will be up to the government that emerges from the next parliamentary elections to actually operate under the thinner framework and most likely it won’t be exactly the same as the current trio of Fico and his coalition partners Ján Slota and Vladimír Mečiar who will have to walk the walk. Second, Fico announced, developed and passed his dieting plan in such a hurry that his critics didn’t even have time to catalogue their objections; and he did so just a few months before the elections without undertaking any detailed feasibility study to ‘count the calories’ that might be saved.

Even if Fico emerges as the top vote-getter in the next parliamentary elections, he might have different coalition partners who may have a suitcase full of arguments to change or scrap the whole plan.

Why didn’t Fico propose his diet for bureaucrats and ministries last January when it was becoming quite clear that Slovakia would in no way be immune from the global economic downturn? Ministries and positions, jobs and purchase orders are always a subject of political bargaining and once a ruling coalition party gets a ministry there are plenty of chances to reward all those who have done something little or something big for that party. Approving a trimming scheme just before parliamentary elections would have made sense if the plan was backed up with a political consensus among all the major players who in some shape or form might have a controlling voice after the elections.

Perhaps the problem is not as much with the number of ministries and ministers but rather the logic of the distribution of issues they handle – and this is something that the new plan isn’t going to improve. First of all, merging the Ministry of Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture does not promise many nights of peaceful sleep to anxious environmentalists, especially in these times when environmental challenges are among the most urgent issues facing the global community and Slovakia cannot pretend it is an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

Another piquant aspect of the ministry-scrapping plan is that the two ministries condemned to oblivion worked under the baton of Slota’s party from 2006 until the Environment Ministry was taken away from the SNS in August 2009 in the aftermath of the scandalous sale of Slovakia’s excess emission quotas to a US-based garage firm called Interblue Group. The Ministry of Construction and Regional Development didn’t lag behind in this respect: it produced the infamous bulletin-board tender which sent €119 million in EU funds to a consortium of firms, including two, Zamedia and Avocat, believed to be close to Slota.

While Smer’s Marek Maďarič quickly denied any connection between the spectacular scandals and the choice of the diminished number of ministries, Slota was swift to lash out at other ministries, making it clear that he thinks those managed by the SNS were no worse than others.

“The Ministry of Economy is now not managing anything,” Slota said, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “As a ministry, it seems to us a kind of deaf-mute.”

To be fair to Fico, with partners like Slota and Mečiar and their legions of party buddies, any plan to trim down the state administration seems like a gargantuan task. But the prime minister has not yet embraced the good habit of listening to folks who might actually know better than political nominees what healthy lifestyle changes could be undertaken by the state administration. For example, the Slovak Governance Institute (SGI) proposed reducing the number of cabinet members from 16 to 12, while urging that there could painlessly be just 16 or 17 state secretaries instead of the current 28. SGI also recommended in early December 2009 that 11 ministries, instead of 14, would be quite enough to effectively manage Slovakia.

But it seems that as the parliamentary elections near, the prime minister sees political nominees and his own hasty political instincts as a better foundation for decision-making than rational, reasoned suggestions from SGI.


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