NGO: civil service watered down by political compromise

Photo: CT24

The Czech coalition and opposition parties have reached a compromise on civil service reform, paving the way for Parliament to adopt the long-overdue legislation. But the deal has come under fire from some Social Democrats as well as anti-corruption advocates, who say the bill has been eviscerated and will likely fall short of improving the country’s public administration.

Photo: CT24
Last week Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka announced a deal his government had reached with the opposition on a civil service bill. The agreement comes after 12 years of haggling over the legislation; the Czech Parliament first adopted a civil service act in 2002 as a prerequisite for the country’s accession to the EU.

But it has never been implemented, and efforts to reform the Czech public administration have since become a recurring theme. On Thursday, however, Prime Minister Sobotka said his government would introduce the much-overdue reform.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Our government is fully responsible for the Civil Service Act entering into force on January 1, 2015. There has been fierce opposition to the legislation and it has been postponed for 12 years.

“But I believe our government will be the first to implement a new system of public administration, will improve the administration and make sure it is more impartial.”

The draft legislation should depoliticize the civil service by making public servants independent of political parties. It should also introduce exams for those applying for positions in public administration, and change the civil service pay system.

Illustrative photo: Radio Prague
But the senior coalition Social Democrats have made several important concessions to the opposition on the bill. Most importantly, they have agreed to drop plans to establish the position of general director of the public administration whose office would control the entire system.

The opposition however made this a deal-breaker, arguing that if adopted it would create a class of “super clerks” with excessive power. The government eventually agreed that instead of the general directorate, a newly created post of deputy interior minister would be in charge of the public administration.

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: CSSD
The compromise has nevertheless been denounced by anti-corruption activists, the trade unions, and Jiří Dienstbier, the Social Democrat minister in charge of government legislation. Mr Dienstbier even engaged in a public spat with the prime minister over the issue.

The minister initially refused to continue working on the draft legislation, and said the planned changes to the bill would not satisfy the European Commission’s guidelines.

“I’m responsible for negotiations with the European Commission and for meeting their conditions for drawing EU funds including the implementation of civil service legislation.

“Right now, however, I cannot guarantee these conditions will be met and therefore cannot be held responsible for it. I expect another cabinet minister will take over.”

Lenka Petráková,  Reconstruction of the State
Minister Diensbier eventually backed down and agreed to continue working on the bill with the opposition.

Details of the draft legislation should become clear in the next couple of weeks. But the outlines of the compromise bill have upset anti-corruption advocates, who have long been pushing for the legislation to be adopted. Lenka Petráková is an expert on public administration reform with the NGO Reconstruction of the State.

“The agreement between the coalition and opposition might insure passing the bill in Parliament. But my concern is whether it will also ensure the quality of the legislation which I doubt.”

The Interior Ministry,  photo: Google Street View
Under the deal, the bill will not establish the general directorate of public administration. How will this affect the functioning of the administration after the legislation comes into effect?

“In my opinion, some coordinating body, whether we call it the general directorate or the institute of public service, will be necessary. I really think this is a crucial point, and I doubt that the agreement abolishing this body and transferring its powers to the Interior Ministry, will yield a functional solution.

Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  CRo
“It basically conserves the current situation when the Interior Ministry is responsible for the training of civil servants. The system has been criticized for not really working and for the money spent on training being channelled to private interest groups.”

What how will the bill change the public administration if it is passed as agreed by the parties?

“Well, we are losing the hope we had in the civil service act. It’s conserving the current situation and it does not change much. It does not address the pay system and retains existing provisions under which different kinds of top-up bonuses form parts of the salaries.

Photo: Czech TV
“It does not address the highly restricted access to jobs in public service which makes it accessible to only current public servants. So it will not increase the professionalism and stability of the state administration.

“The training system of civil servants has not been fully finalized and, like many other measures, is to be detailed later through decrees and other instruments. So it’s really difficult to assess what the outcome will be but I think that some of the original proposal’s crucial parts are being left out.”

European Commission,  photo: JLogan,  Wikimedia CC BY 3.0
Minister Dienstbier expressed concern over whether the bill will be acceptable for the European Commission. What do you think?

“The European Commission has made it repeatedly clear they demand this legislation. But they have always emphasized the quality of the bill should not suffer because of its hasty approval.

“But I’m afraid we are seeing just that. When you look at the EC’s comments released unofficially last month, they said it was hard to assess the bill because, as I said, many of the policies are only to be finalized in the future.”

Reconstruction of the State
Ahead of last year’s general election, your group, Reconstruction of the State, came up with nine bills to curb corruption and improve the state administration including a bill on civil service. In total, 165 of the 200 MPs signed a pledge to support the legislation in the lower house. Do you now feel there is still a will to go ahead with these bills?

“Unfortunately, we have found out that some of the deputies who signed the pledge did not really understand what they signed. Other MPs did understand but they are not really willing to push the bills through.

“One of the points in the pledge was to set up the general directorate, or some coordinating body of the administration. That was one of the key points. We have tried reminding the MPs of the pledge but the reality is that political considerations have overridden the content of the bill.”