IN A PLACE where people who entered the public service did so in order to serve the public and were able to resist the temptation to use loopholes in the law to channel the odd dime or the odd million into their own pockets or those of their friends, the legislative amendment that Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák recently prepared in order to speed up public procurement might work just fine.
But Slovakia is not that place. Here, a person who oversaw one of the dodgiest tenders in the country’s recent history – and is currently facing prosecution (alongside two ex-ministers, no less) for rigging a major public procurement process – has had no trouble getting another job (doing guess what… yes, you guessed it) overseeing procurement at a state joint-stock company – one which, according to the Sme daily, is among the country’s ten biggest public procurers.
Zdenka Kudláčová has been charged in association with the so-called bulletin board tender, which was ostensibly for legal and support services worth €120 million and was announced solely via a notice posted on a bulletin board at the Construction Ministry in an area not normally accessible to the public. It was awarded to the sole bidder, a consortium linked to the leader of the party that nominated the then construction minister. Even though she resigned shortly after Sme broke the story, the fact that she had been given the job in the first place hardly instils confidence in public sector self-regulation.
Public procurement in Slovakia has produced several ‘tender’ monsters which continue to haunt watchdogs, who say they have not been given much reason to believe that the political culture in the country has matured to the point that we can leave it entirely up to servants of the state to decide what, for example, is in “the public interest” and would justify a contract being signed even if unsuccessful bidders have filed objections to the result.
The way the Fico government forced the revision to public procurement rules through parliament in little more than 24 hours, citing the need to boost Slovakia’s ability to draw down more money from European funds by the end of 2013, evokes little confidence.
Deputy Prime Minister for Investments Ľubomír Vážny casually mentioned the possibility of a fast-tracked revision to procurement rules on February 6. On February 11 the government adopted the wording of the revision at a specially-summoned session. On February 13 parliament, in which the governing Smer party holds an overwhelming majority, passed the revision through every legislative stage. The changes are likely to become law as of February 18, according to Sme.
Why did the government suddenly break into a sweat only now? Why the sudden rush? These questions have engaged journalists, ethics watchdogs and the opposition.
Kaliňák offered an explanation on February 11. “Last week we got a report on drawing EU funds and this is the instant response,” he said, as quoted by Sme. Well, an official European Commission press release from last November announced that “Slovakia is behind the EU average in its ability to ‘absorb’ EU funds: at 38 percent, as opposed to the average of 44 percent”.
EU Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who met Prime Minister Robert Fico on November 9, 2012, was also pretty clear on this point.
“I urge the Slovak authorities to make full use of the funds available to support the competitiveness of small and medium sized companies, to boost research and innovation, and to invest in key transport networks and the sustainable use of natural resources,” Hahn said back in November in a press release.
The ethics watchdogs admit that the present changes will eliminate some factors which have resulted in delays. But as Gabriel Šípoš, the head of political ethics watchdog Transparency International Slovensko, noted, the main risks in the revision lie in its implementation.
And this goes back to one of the country’s chronic ailments: Slovakia’s problem is not that it has massively deficient legislation or that it has huge blind spots untouched by the law. It much more often comes down to implementation and the human factor. Perhaps with this baggage, the government might forgive the press and watchdogs when they are less than enthusiastic about fast-tracked revisions to the procurement rules, which unbind the hands of bureaucrats who are far too often political nominees.
18. Feb 2013 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová