The death of the districts
The districts have died. Since January 1 this year, the powers of the Czech Republic's 73 districts have been transferred to regional and local authorities as the country reforms its public administration. But while this is widely seen as a step towards greater democratic accountability, critics claim that everyday citizens and the local offices have not been adequately informed of the changes.
There is also a practical advantage in bringing the government closer to the people: the communal offices will save many people a lot of time. From January 1 the communes have taken over responsibility for such matters as the issuance of ID cards, motor vehicle registration, forest administration, processing applications for social assistance and disbursing social benefits. For some the changes will not mean much: they may have to go to the same or to another building in their city or town to complete their tasks. But for the residents of smaller places it will make a difference, for they will no longer have to travel to the district centre to settle certain matters.
These changes are part of the reforms in public administration that have been taking place in the Czech Republic since the end of communism. In 1990 the government of Petr Pithart abolished the powers of the previous communist regions, which meant that there was no tier of government between Prague and the approximately 6,000 villages and municipalities in the Czech Republic. Regional bureaucracy was conducted mainly through the district offices of the state administration, which made for a highly centralised decision-making process.
The Czech Constitution, which came into effect after the division of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992, called for a third level of government. This is also required by the acquis communitaire of the European Union, which makes the reforms essential for the Czech Republic's accession to the EU. As a result, the regions were established in 2000, and another step in this reform process has been the transfer of powers from the districts to the regions and accredited communes this year.
One of the problems that this redistribution of powers brings concerns the standard of service in the local offices: the end of the districts means that there is increased pressure on the communal offices, and there have been difficulties in finding qualified and available specialists to fill positions. Critics also contend that the Ministry of the Interior should have done more to adequately inform citizens of the changes. Most Czechs do not know much about the reforms, and many communal offices are also not entirely aware of the extent of their new functions.