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Regional admins 'not open enough'

WHEN it comes to transparency, Slovakia’s regional governments, which spend more than €1 billion in public funds each year, are falling behind the country’s largest cities in terms of their public procurement practices, in selling and renting property, and in their personnel policies, according to a recent survey. Lack of transparency increases the risks of ineffective spending of public funds and creates room for corruption, warns transparency watchdog Transparency International Slovensko (TIS), the author of the survey “Open local governments”. It was the first assessment of its kind covering regional governments, which have been in existence now for over a decade. Despite their size, the watchdog notes that the operations of regional governments rarely make it into the national media spotlight or attract the attention of the public.

WHEN it comes to transparency, Slovakia’s regional governments, which spend more than €1 billion in public funds each year, are falling behind the country’s largest cities in terms of their public procurement practices, in selling and renting property, and in their personnel policies, according to a recent survey. Lack of transparency increases the risks of ineffective spending of public funds and creates room for corruption, warns transparency watchdog Transparency International Slovensko (TIS), the author of the survey “Open local governments”. It was the first assessment of its kind covering regional governments, which have been in existence now for over a decade. Despite their size, the watchdog notes that the operations of regional governments rarely make it into the national media spotlight or attract the attention of the public.

The eight regional governments achieved an average of 46 out of a maximum 100 points on Transparency International’s scale, with the best-scoring region earning only 53 points and the worst-performing region just 35 points. By contrast, the municipalities of Slovakia’s largest cities, reviewed in a similar ranking last year, achieved an average rating of 55 points, with the best performer scoring 77 points, the watchdog noted in a press release.

Banská Bystrica Region scored highest in the transparency table, with 53 points, followed by Žilina (52 points) and Bratislava (47 points) regions. The worst result was for Trenčín Region, which collected only one third of the possible points.

Current aggregate annual spending by regional governments stands at €1.1 billion, which in terms of expenditure would make them, collectively, the sixth-highest spenders if ranked among government ministries. Most of the regions’ funding goes to secondary schools, road maintenance and social utilities. But the operations of regional governments do not attract much attention from the media or the public, the watchdog claims.

The mayors of Slovakia’s 25 largest Slovak towns together distribute approximately the same amount of money as the heads of the eight regional governments, yet their work is much more extensively covered in the Slovak media, TIS said.

Citizens, on the other hand, are sceptical about the workings of regional governments. A Transparency International Slovensko survey from 2009 suggests that one third of citizens think that corruption in regional government is widespread.

“Only very few understand how regional governments operate, despite the fact that the handling of €185 from every citizen in Slovakia relies on the effectiveness of the regional governments,” Matej Kurian of Transparency International Slovensko told The Slovak Spectator.

Compared to municipalities, citizens come into direct contact with policies formed at the regional – also known colloquially as ‘county’ – level on far fewer occasions.

“They do not care whether the road or the school is administered by the region or the municipal government, they only want them to function,” said Kurian.

The main problems

According to Transparency International Slovensko, among the main problems it identified were the fact that the regional governments do not use electronic auctions frequently enough for sales and rentals and that they also fail to publish the results of sales or procurement processes.

“When hiring employees, competitive selection is rare and published information about the course and results of these procedures is lacking,” Transparency International Slovensko wrote in its press release.

The ranking assessed regional governments in 11 areas, from providing information about their operations, to the opportunity for involving the public in debate and the openness of public procurement and personnel policies, to property rental and grant provision.

The transparency ranking measured the quality of formal rules based on 126 indicators, such as the use of electronic auctions, the form in which lists of contracts and invoices were published on official websites, the existence of a code of ethics covering employees, or whether a personal asset declaration by the head of the region is provided on request.

“Trenčín Region, based on our research, has not installed any formal mechanisms to strengthen ethical behaviour, such as a code of ethics for employees or elected officials,” Kurian said, adding that it is the only regional government that does not publish mandatory personal asset declarations by its deputies and the head of the region.

The best performer

Banská Bystrica Region scored well for the quality of the information it provides about the work of the regional government and its committees, including video recordings as well as information on investment projects.

In the area of regional planning almost all the regions achieved a 100-percent score, but the watchdog said this does not mean that they have no room for improvement.

“This area was assessed by only two questions, which predominantly stemmed from [the regions’] existing legal duty: the regions really cannot afford not to publish their master plans,” Kurian said.

According to the assessment, Banská Bystrica Region was the only regional government to have established a code of ethics covering employees.

The spokesman for Banská Bystrica Region, Peter Hajnala, explained that the goal was to set basic rules of behaviour for the regional government administration. He added that under the current management the office had not recorded any violations of the code.

“On the other hand, we are of the opinion that code of ethics does not, in itself, guarantee the behaviour of employees, because individual norms in the code are also included in the Labour Code and the law on work undertaken in the public interest,” Hajnala told The Slovak Spectator. “Yet the knowledge that the Banská Bystrica regional government is interested in solving any issues in a transparent manner certainly contributes to the behaviour of its employees.”

Hajnala added that the provisions of the code of ethics will be revised in such a way that they respond to current needs and demands placed on Banská Bystrica regional government employees.

One area in which the Banská Bystrica regional government achieved a low score was in its personnel policies. Transparency International was particularly critical of its failure to publish the results of competitive selection processes on its website.

Hajnala said that this evaluation had come as a surprise to the regional government, and remarked that the region uses public competitive selection even where the law does not require it. The selection procedures involve psychological tests which draw on sensitive data, according to Hajnala, meaning that it is not possible to publish the results.

Hajnala said this could change, however, stating: “If we resolve this issue, we will publish the records from the selection procedures.”

A wider problem with graft

The cabinet of Iveta Radičová took office in mid-2010 promising to fight corruption and make the public arena more transparent. Despite successfully passing some measures to this effect, among them a flagship law that requires all contracts with the state and its institutions be published online, Slovakia’s results in the separate Corruption Perception Index 2011, also conducted by Transparency International, were relatively poor. However, observers believe that next year’s index, which will evaluate 2011, could see the country improve its ranking.

Slovakia ranked 66th out of the 183 countries in the latest overall ranking and 26th in the EU and Western Europe region, with a score of 4 points. It was the fifth lowest result among all EU members, with only Italy, Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria ranking lower.
The other three Visegrad Group members all ranked above Slovakia: Poland placed best, at 41st, followed by Hungary (54th) and the Czech Republic (57th).

The Transparency International ranking of countries, based on their perceived level of corruption, is the most-cited index of transparency worldwide. It is often used by large companies when considering where to invest.

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