Letter from Prague


Recently, a prestigious Czech magazine carried a report from the Czech Ministry of the Interior on its clerks, and devoted much space to one of them, a Mr. Moravec, who at the age of 77 is undoubtedly the oldest civil servant still at work in the Czech Republic. Working at the ministry since 1945, Mr. Moravec has lived through three different political regimes, and even now he holds quite an important post: it's he who decides which of hundreds of asylum seekers will be granted asylum in the Czech Republic. His only "helpers" are a map of the world on the wall and an old typewriter. Two years ago, he received a computer, but found out that he did not really need it for his work, and so it was removed from his office.

Well, what might seem as a rarity is not far from everyday reality in the Czech Republic. The average age of civil servants at Czech ministries is estimated at 46, and when a new, young clerk is introduced, he is surprised how few young colleagues he can see in his workplace. The working hours usually start at 7.30 in the morning and end at 4.15, but many civil servants come to work even earlier, to be able to leave sooner and save the rest of the day for their private life. Young clerks complain that their older colleagues are old-fashioned and don't let anybody interfere in or change the way they work. For instance, at the Ministry of Social Affairs, as one of the young civil servants disclosed, it's not possible to get fax paper when it runs out - you have to queue for it on a certain day at a certain hour to get a supply for the following week, just enough to work with, until you have to queue for another portion next time.

On Fridays the working hours officially end at 3 p.m., but usually it's impossible to find anyone still in the office at 2, and that includes heads of departments. The operator usually announces dryly: everyone's gone, sorry. And the home-like atmosphere can be felt elsewhere as well - although smoking is not allowed in the ministerial buildings, you can always find several big ash trays standing in the corridors on each floor.

Some time ago I was sent to the streets of Prague to ask people how they were satisfied with the performance of their civil servants. I was extremely unsuccessful: everybody told me he or she had terrible experiences, that going to an office was a nightmare, but all of those I asked were too scared to say this to the microphone.

Meanwhile, experts say that Czech civil servants have always kept up with the latest world's trends. Most of them are fully devoted to their work and consider it their life's mission. One of the shortcomings of the whole system is that regarding their age, the majority of civil servants went to school in the communist era, and that's why - with the exception of a few of younger ones - they don't speak any foreign language. This might be a serious problem after the Czech Republic becomes a member of the European Union. But, on the other hand, Czech civil servants' salaries hover around the national average, which means their Western colleagues earn ten times more. But most of Czech civil servants say they are glad to have a job in the first place - at a time when the unemployment rate in the Czech Republic is around eight percent.