Letter from Prague

If you listened to Radio Prague during the course of this week, you may well have heard a piece on alleged corruption and inefficiency amongst Czech civil servants. The story was based on public opinion polls and complaints over the years about civil servants and the way they work.

In one recent opinion poll, compiled by Transparency International, an organisation that monitors corruption, one third of Czechs asked said that without bribes the Czech state administration would cease to function. Twenty four percent of respondents admitted that in the past three years they had been in a situation where a bribe was expected. Also, many Czechs believe that there are far too many civil servants and that they do not work effectively. If anything, this opinion poll was not a great endorsement of the Czech civil service.

I found it this piece particularly interesting, because Radio Prague's Alena Skodova, who covered the story, went out onto the streets of Prague to ask people for their opinions on corruption. Although many of them were quite vocal off the record about their bad experiences with civil servants, and about having to pay bribes, they all refused to have their comments recorded for our programme, even though this would have been completely anonymous. It seems that for many of them the idea of going on the record saying something against civil servants was just too much.

Almost without exception, all of the Czechs that I know have had bad experiences with civil servants, have had to pay bribes and generally describe them in anything but flattering terms.

But, and this is the really fascinating thing, civil servants were once highly respected members of Czech society. Under the rule of the Habsburg empire, and also throughout the First Czechoslovak Republic, from the foundation of the independent state through to the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by the Nazis, being a civil servant made one a valued part of the state administration, to be looked up to, admired and trusted by the rest of society.

If you look at the gravestones of civil servants who died during the First Czechoslovak, the fact that they were civil servants is listed proudly. In a recent article in one of the Czech dailies, Mlada Fronta Dnes, which dealt with the very same topic, the paper even quoted examples of tombstones of the relatives of civil servants, mentioning their relationship to civil servants. It was indeed an honoured profession.

What happened to make civil servants so reviled today? In a word: Communism. Throughout the Communist regime, civil servants supplemented their incomes by taking bribes. The power they had to decide where people lived, what job they did, whether they could get a car, whether their children could go to university, was highly valuable. They became feared and hated during Communism, because they could and did have so much hold over the lives of ordinary people.

Although the extent of the power of civil servants has decreased since the Velvet Revolution, they are still a force to be reckoned with, and if one wants to build a house, or do anything that requires official permission, a bribe is frequently required. This is a society in transition, and some things take longer than others to change. In the Czech public sector, civil servants are going to have to learn that they are there to serve the people, and not make money off them. This change will come, but for many people, it couldn't come soon enough.